Tuesday, November 24, 2009

After Years of Delay Britain opens Iraq War Inquiry


After years of delay and dispute, Britain formally opened an official public inquiry on Tuesday into the Iraq war — a conflict that stirred deep opposition here as former Prime Minister Tony Blair broke ranks with major European allies to join the United States in the 2003 invasion.

The probe seemed likely to illuminate hitherto unpublicized aspects of the relationship between London and Washington that led critics to depict Mr. Blair as a slavish junior partner in his alliance with President George W. Bush.

That close relationship does not seem to have been mirrored on the ground, according to official Defense Ministry documents leaked to a British newspaper Monday on the eve of the inquiry’s opening.

The documents, published in The Daily Telegraph, revealed a climate of stark animosity among senior British officers toward American military commanders, in sharp contrast to Mr. Blair’s support for the war as President Bush’s principal international partner.

Britain was the second-largest troop provider, and thus the Bush administration’s principal ally among about 30 nations constituting the occupation force.

The inquiry which opened Tuesday is led by a retired official, Sir John Chilcot, formerly the highest-ranking civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office.

Critics have said that Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s choice of a Whitehall insider to head the inquiry has doomed it to becoming a “whitewash,” but Mr. Chilcot has vowed to investigate all aspects of Britain’s involvement.

The conflict led to charges that Mr. Blair and his supporters misled the public into believing that Saddam Hussein controlled an armory of weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found after the invasion.

The unpopularity of the war — and its impact on Mr. Blair’s once glittery image among British voters — contributed to his ouster by Mr. Brown two years ago. British troops withdrew from Iraq in July.

The inquiry is expected to last at least 18 months, beginning with testimony from some of the most powerful figures involved in Britain’s decision to join the invasion, including Mr. Blair. It was not clear when Mr. Blair would testify.

Some of the most explosive revelations are expected to come from the inquiry’s power to summon, and to publish where it chooses, official documents like those disclosed by The Telegraph, based on confidential interviews with British officers returning from Iraq in the first year after the invasion.

Partial transcripts of the interviews in the paper suggested that strains between the two allies, though known to some degree at the time, were more severe than previously acknowledged.

The Telegraph’s report revealed that British officers’ refusal to carry out American orders resulted in a formal State Department rebuke in 2004 to Britain’s ambassador in Washington, Sir David Manning.

The newspaper quoted the British commander in southern Iraq at the time, Maj. Gen. Andrew Stewart, as saying he spent “a significant amount of my time ‘consenting and evading’ U.S. orders” to take military action against a powerful Shiite militia in the south, and engaging in negotiation instead.

Col. J. K. Tanner, chief of staff to General Stewart until June 2004 in the British divisional headquarters in the southern city of Basra, was quoted in the transcripts as saying that British commanders found that the Americans then in overall command in Baghdad, led by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, were resistant to dialogue and negotiation over military strategy and other issues, to the point of “arrogance” and an insensitivity the colonel compared to “dealing with a group of Martians.”

“The whole system was appalling,” Colonel Tanner said. “We experienced real difficulty in dealing with the American military and civilian organizations who, partly through arrogance and partly through bureaucracy, dictate that there is only one way: the American way.”

He added, “Despite our so-called ‘special relationship,’ I reckon that we were treated no differently to the Portuguese.”

Elsewhere in the transcript, the colonel pressed the point. Speaking of the Americans, he said: “They need to reintroduce dialogue as a tool of command because, although it is easy to speak to Americans face to face and understand each other completely, dealing with them corporately is akin to dealing with a group of Martians. If it isn’t on the PowerPoint slide, it doesn’t happen.”

The documents obtained by The Telegraph show that the strains in Iraq reached a peak in April 2004 when General Sanchez, the American commander, ordered the arrest in Baghdad of a powerful follower of the Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr.

Mr. Sadr responded by staging an uprising against American troops in Baghdad and Najaf, a Shiite holy city 100 miles south of the capital, that led to one of the most violent chapters in the war.

In the south, the documents show, American commanders ordered the British to launch “offensive operations” against the Sadr militia, but British commanders responded instead by negotiating with local Shiite leaders.

This led to a showdown in Basra between General Sanchez and British commanders, who argued that Britain’s colonial experience had taught that occupying powers had to govern restive populations “as they found them,” not to try to eliminate popular leaders like Mr. Sadr.

The confrontation between the two nations’ militaries was etched out starkly in the Telegraph documents. Brig. Bruce Brealey, Britain’s chief of operations support in Basra in the second half of 2003, was quoted as telling debriefers that when American orders reached the British, “we noted the intent but tended to ignore the detail.” He added, “We would follow the ‘what,’ and often ignore the ‘how.’” General Stewart, in a similar vein, said that when he evaded American orders to take military action, it was because he believed that using negotiation could “achieve the same result using different means.”

The bitterness persisted deep into the war, with American commanders accusing the British of appeasing the Shiite militias that ultimately took control of Basra, and the British accusing the Americans of resorting too readily to force in cities like Falluja.

The recriminations eased only after 2007, when American commanders under Gen. David H. Petraeus adopted new counterinsurgency tactics that British officers saw as drawing partly on lessons Britain had learned in earlier conflicts, leading British officers to say that the Americans had finally grasped lessons missed at the outset of the war.

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