Tony Blair and Iraq: blithe ignorance

About the author
John Sloboda is executive director of the Oxford Research Group and is a co-founder of the Iraq Body Count project.
The British prime minister is in a state of wilful denial about Iraq, says John Sloboda of Iraq Body Count.

Tony Blair's denial of reality was astounding enough when, in the aftermath of the London bombs on 7 July 2005, he rejected any connection between the attacks and the United States-United Kingdom-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In the week of the anniversary of "7/7", he managed to surpass even his own prior achievement when challenged by MPs during a parliamentary committee meeting. In an example of shameful political expediency, the British prime minister denied that the terrible security situation for ordinary Iraqis today has resulted from his joint decision with George W Bush to invade their country (see Paul Rogers, "The threads of war", 6 July 2006).

The civilian death toll recorded by Iraq Body Count (IBC) since the beginning of the invasion of Iraq will soon exceed 45,000 deaths. There is no end in sight to the bloodshed: it simply continues to grow, with fifty deaths already the average daily rate for 2006, the highest yet in a continual year-on-year rise since the invasion. Even this shocking level of destroyed lives represents only those violent deaths which have been reliably documented in some way – many others will be unreported and unrecorded, and it may take years or decades until the full human cost of military intervention in Iraq becomes known.

No steps have been taken by the British government towards making or assisting in an accounting of the human cost of its war. Yet this is the same government whose leader told parliament on 19 March 2003, the eve of the invasion, that Saddam Hussein "will be responsible for many, many more deaths even in one year than we will be in any conflict." This was an oddly confident prediction to make before "any conflict" involving a massive military invasion, and Blair offered no data or specific expectations to justify it.

John Sloboda is executive director of the Oxford Research Group and is a co-founder of the Iraq Body Count project. Also by John Sloboda in openDemocracy:

- "The 'Blair doctrine' and after: five years of humanitarian intervention"
(22 April 2004) - with Chris Abbott -"Saving the planet and ourselves: the way to global security"
(12 June 2006)

But at the time the only issue that mattered to the war-planners, and on which they were forced to produce any material evidence, concerned Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that being their sole declared justification for war. Now that the WMD claims have evaporated along with the WMDs, all that is left is the invaders' continued assurances that their war has benefited Iraqis.

When Edward Leigh, chairman of the House of Commons public-accounts committee, pressed Tony Blair on 3 July about the terrible civil insecurity in Iraq, the prime minister insisted that the tens of thousands of deaths recorded by IBC are not "a result of the invasion" but "the result of the activities of a criminal minority".

Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that the invasion itself was in the opinion of many legal experts, as well as the vast majority of humanity generally, a criminal act, this still leaves one reeling at the obliviousness of a man who, with yet another glib remark, can wave away the 7,000 or more Iraqi civilian deaths caused during the carnage of the "shock and awe" invasion; or the more than 10,000 civilian deaths clearly and directly attributable to US/UK-led forces; or indeed anyone who imagines that car bombs in marketplaces were a daily occurrence in Iraq before the invasion.

Iraq's killing-fields

Faced with the simple facts of life in Iraq today – where every single day is a 7/7, or worse – Blair could only offer up one counter-statistic in his support, namely that "300,000 people [who disagreed with Saddam Hussein] are in mass graves there".

Even if this one of many widely differing estimates is accurate, it cannot possibly be used as a humanitarian justification for the invasion. The vast majority of these deaths (no matter which estimate one uses) are from the 1980s and the very early 1990s. You cannot use deaths which occurred in 1988 as a post-hoc justification for invading in 2003. The only relevant statistic is what was happening in the years immediately preceding the war and on the eve of war, not what had happened fifteen or twenty years before.

Human Rights Watch, which was not opposed in principle to military intervention if it could save Iraqi lives, is of the view that "before taking the substantial risk to life that is inherent in any war, mass slaughter should be taking place or imminent. That was not the case in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in March 2003."

Amnesty International described the years of 2001 and 2002 as having "scores" of killings by Saddam Hussein's government, and "hundreds" in 2000. They found instances of killings, but not of mass killings.

Therefore the most reasonable expectation for the number of killings that would have been carried out under Saddam's state apparatus in the years 2003-06, had there been no invasion, and if we restrict ourselves to evidence rather than glib assurances, would have been in the "scores" or perhaps "hundreds".

Applying figures from mass killings in the 1980s as if the events of those days were still ongoing in 2003 bears no resemblance to reality. As brutal as his government had been in the past, and even continued to be to the last, by 2003 Saddam's government was no longer engaged in killings anywhere near the magnitude Iraqis are now seeing each and every day. In sum, the deaths being recorded by IBC are of people who would almost certainly be alive today but for the decisions taken by Blair and Bush.

Much as it might pain Tony Blair to accept the consequences of his ill-conceived foreign adventures, decision-makers need to recognise the link between military intervention in Iraq and the deaths of many thousands of innocents, as well as the subsequent and ongoing collapse in civil security for ordinary Iraqis. The sooner they do so, the sooner the suffering of the Iraqi people can be brought to an end with strategies that do not treat bombs and bullets as the solution to human ills.