There were regrets, sorrow and justifications but Gordon Brown insisted yesterday that despite loss of life it had been the “right decision” to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
The Prime Minister defended both his crucial political backing for Tony Blair’s war plans and his own role as Chancellor in funding the Armed Forces during the conflict and occupation.
His evidence to the Chilcot inquiry was met with disbelief by former commanders and defense chiefs.
Major-General Patrick Cordingley, who commanded 7th Armoured Brigade in the Gulf War and retired from the Army in 2000, said: “I think it is difficult to see how one’s conscience can be clear when it’s very obvious that the Armed Forces have been underfunded for many years. Despite enough money being available for operational requirements, it never overcame the capability gap that had grown up over the years.”
Another senior defence source said: “If it was possible for us to do whatever we wanted to do then why has almost every other single witness to the inquiry said that the operation was undermanned and under-resourced?”
Mr Brown said that he had been unaware of key questions surrounding the legality of the invasion, the intelligence used to justify the war publicly and Mr Blair’s secret “pledge” to join the United States in military action.
Discussions about the war budget began nine months before the invasion in March 2003, he told the inquiry.
“I said immediately to the Prime Minister that the military options that were under discussion, there should be no sense that there was a financial restraint that prevented us doing what was best for the military,” said Mr Brown.
“My role in this was, first of all, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was to make sure that the funding was there for what we had to do.”
The former Chancellor defended his decision in September 2003 to control Ministry of Defence spending after new budget rules resulted in an unexpected £1.3 billion increase in military spending in a matter of months.
General Lord Walker of Aldringham, the head of the Armed Forces at the time, had told the inquiry that senior commanders threatened to resign if cuts went much further.
Mr Brown said he had been forced to restrict the spending because, if every government department followed the MoD interpretation of the rules, total public spending would have increased by £12 billion — equivalent to 3p in the pound on income tax.
When asked about the failure to replace the Army’s lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers which were easy prey to the insurgents’ roadside bombs, he replied: “I have to stress it is not for me to make the military decisions on the ground about the use of particular vehicles. What I can, however, say is that at every point we were asked to provide money and the resources for new equipment or for improving equipment, we made that money available.”
The Treasury swiftly approved £90 million for new vehicles when the Army raised concerns in 2006 about Snatch Land Rovers.
The new equipment included 100 Mastiff heavily protected vehicles, the adaptation of a further 50 Bulldog tracked personnel carriers and new Vector troop transporters.
Mr Brown told the inquiry: “If you look at the question of expenditure in Iraq you have got to start at this one fundamental truth: that every request that the military commanders made to us for equipment was answered — no request was ever turned down.”
Mr Brown conceded that he had “regrets” over not being more successful in convincing America of the need for better post-conflict planning. The statement was in contrast to Mr Blair’s, who had instead he felt “responsibility but not a regret” for any of his decisions.
The Prime Minister referred repeatedly to the “lessons learnt” from the Iraq war, including the need to end his predecessor’s “sofa government” decision-making and the need for proper postwar planning.
“We won the battle within seven days but it has taken seven years to win the peace in Iraq,” said Mr Brown. “I think we are developing the concepts of a ‘just peace’ and how we can actually manage conflicts like this.”
The Prime Minister told the inquiry: “It was one of my regrets that I wasn’t able to be more successful in pushing the Americans on this issue — that the planning for reconstruction was essential, just the same as planning for the war.” Mr Brown rejected earlier criticism by Clare Short, the former International Development Secretary, that the Cabinet had been sidelined in the run up to the war. He insisted he had “sufficient information before me to make that judgment” before voting in favour of the invasion.
“I do say that everything that Mr Blair did during this period, he did properly,” he added. But the Prime Minister admitted he had been unaware of a number of controversial issues.
Mr Brown acknowledged that he had not been present at a number of key meetings held by Mr Blair in the build-up to the invasion in March 2003. He said he did not see a Cabinet Office “options paper” in March 2002 which included the possibility of invading Iraq. The paper was prepared ahead of Mr Blair’s meeting at President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Mr Brown said he was also unaware of a series of highly confidential letters from Mr Blair to President Bush in which the Prime Minister is said to have “pledged” that Britain would join in the military action.
Mr Brown also did not know that of Lord Goldsmith’s late change of view on the legality of the war. The Attorney-General had said in early 2003 that the invasion would be unlawful but told the Cabinet just days before the war that it would be legal. He was also unaware of doubts about evidence obtained by MI6 that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including concerns from his Cabinet colleague Robin Cook, who was the only minister to resign over the war. Mr Brown had requested five briefings from intelligence chiefs about evidence on Saddam’s WMDs between March 2002 and February 2003.
“I had full briefing from the intelligence service and I was given information that seemed credible, plausible at the time,” he said. “I do not recall a conversation with Robin about the intelligence. He may have mentioned that at the Cabinet, I cannot recall.” Mr Brown said it was right to overthrow Saddam for his repeated failure to comply with United Nations resolutions.
Asked by Sir John Chilcot, the chairman of the inquiry, to give his concluding thoughts, Mr Brown replied: “Obviously the loss of life is something that makes us all sad. We have got to recognise that war may be necessary, but it is also tragic in the effect it has on people’s lives. These were difficult decisions, these were decisions that required judgment, these were decisions that required strong leadership, these were decisions that were debated and divided a lot of opinion in the country. I believe they were the right decisions for the right reasons but I also believe it is our duty to learn the lessons from what has happened.” Timesonline