We tried to stop the war on Iraq

It has been more than seven years since a British panel started an inquiry into how and why the UK government opted to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, triggering a chain of conflict that has left the country in ruins.

The grim account finally came in the form of a staggering 2.6 million word report. The report, which involved access to British documents and witnesses, addressed mainly Britain’s decision to go to war, sold to the public with the assertion that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s arsenal contained weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Of course, the report has now established that no WMDs were ever in existence, a fact that was already well known at the time thanks to testimonies by UN weapons inspectors and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

But for many critics the Chilcot Inquiry has only scratched the surface of the disastrous course of action of invading Iraq due to the fact that the investigation was confined to evidence related to only British policy-making.

One of main critiques of the report is that it left out Iraqi accounts of the invasion and in particular evidence of how the war could have been averted altogether.

A key missing element that could have been especially damaging for former UK prime minister Tony Blair and other top British officials who in 2003 decided to join the United States in the war was information about attempts made before the war to push Saddam to step down in order to avoid the invasion.

Such information did not get an airing because Iraqis were never questioned or asked to participate in the Chilcot Inquiry due to the mandate given it by the then British prime minister Gordon Brown who restricted evidence to British witnesses and documents.

However, the publication of the report provides an opportunity to revisit some of the records that could determine that it was neither right nor necessary to invade Iraq in March 2003, a conclusion the report has largely neglected.  

Back in 2002 a few months before the invasion, a group of Iraqi political activists, academics and intellectuals who were opposed to the idea of regime change through a foreign invasion, kicked off an initiative to stop the war.

In an open letter to Saddam, the group called on the Iraqi dictator to quit and allow a transitional government to take over to prepare for the UN-sponsored election of a democratic government in Iraq.

“The clouds of war are gathering over the sky of Iraq, stoking dangers to the Iraqi people, the peoples of the region, and to the world’s peace and security,” they said in the statement.

“In order to stop the war and avoid its dire consequences, the leadership of the current regime should step down to clear the way for a better future for the country,” the Iraqi group wrote.

The letter was backed up by efforts to garner broad Arab support for Saddam’s peaceful exit.

The present writer, who was one of the signatories of the letter, raised the idea of Saddam’s removal in many writings at the time, intending to get the proposal through to a wide spectrum of international public opinion and policy-makers.

The “Call to Step Down,” as the letter was dubbed, was an attempt to ask Saddam to save Iraq from destruction and Iraqis from the expected scourges of war.

With huge military deployments already under way, it was also a message to the world that there was a peaceful way to end the conflict.

On 30 December, I wrote in a piece run by the Associated Press that Arab leaders looking for a way to avoid a US-Iraq war that they feared would ignite the volatile region were considering the possibility of pressing Saddam to step down and go into exile.

The article followed a report about a visit made by former Qatari foreign minister Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani to Baghdad for talks with Saddam during which he offered him exile in an unspecified country.

“There is a strong feeling that the United States is after Saddam and not after weapons of mass destruction, and therefore efforts should focus on how to persuade Saddam to leave,” one Arab diplomat in the Jordanian capital Amman said at the time.

On 23 January 2003, I wrote in this paper that Iraq’s neighbours, increasingly desperate to head off a regional war, were encouraging Saddam to step down and go into exile.

Any package offered to Saddam was likely to include a safe haven for his family and close aides, I wrote, based on information received from senior Arab diplomats.

Newspapers at the time carried reports of offers made to Saddam to flee to Egypt. Osama Al-Baz, a political adviser to former president Hosni Mubarak, hinted that Cairo might give Saddam sanctuary if asked.

Egypt had previously hosted many of the region’s fallen leaders, including king Saud of Saudi Arabia, former Yemeni president Abdullah Ali Al-Salal, the former shah of Iran, and ex-president of Sudan Gaafar Nimeiri.

In February 2003, I interviewed an Egyptian chemist who had befriended Saddam when the latter had lived in exile in Cairo in the 1960s. Louis Neguib, still running a pharmacy in Giza, told me he would offer Saddam the use of a villa he owned near the Pyramids should he come to Egypt.

“He will be welcome as one of my own family,” the pharmacist said.

Former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel also launched his own bid to broker a deal with the US Bush administration that would have allowed Saddam to flee.

In a January 2004 interview with the British TV channel Channel 4, Gemayel acknowledged that he had launched the initiative but did not give details. The Arab media later reported that the mediation effort had failed over the terms of Saddam’s removal.

What happened to these initiatives remained a mystery, however.

The Iraqi activists succeeded in convincing Zayed Al-Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates, to present the proposal to an Arab summit meeting that was to convene in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt on 1 March 2003 in order to endorse it as a joint Arab proposal.

The then Arab League secretary-general, Amr Moussa, however, did not bring the proposal to the discussion. Moussa told reporters the proposal was not considered as an official request and “was excluded from the consideration of the Council.”

“This has nothing to do with the Security Council Resolution [related to Iraq’s WMDs],” he said. “We don’t see the justification of going beyond the Security Council,” he added at a press conference following the summit.

But Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Emirates information minister at the time and its current foreign minister, said pan-Arab endorsement of the plan could have prevented the war.

“Rejecting these ideas put forward by the UAE is acceptance of the remaining option, which is war,” he said after the summit.

In an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper in November 2012, Moussa blamed Arab leaders for not taking up the idea.

All this ought to leave us with the question of whether giving these initiatives a chance to succeed could have made things better for the peace camp and provided the opportunity for the world to prevent the invasion.

The idea of Saddam leaving Iraq for good might have been dismissed as far-fetched, but it still cropped up as a possibility. The thought was raised not only as an alternative to the war, but also to allow regime change in Iraq from within.

It is true that regime change from within could have been quite a challenge for the Iraqi opposition under Saddam’s ruthless dictatorship, but the process would still have stood a chance if it had received strong backing from regional and international powers.

The real Chilcot Inquiry verdict on Blair is not that he was a man guided by his “wishful thinking and moral fervour” but that he was a liar and a war criminal whose disastrous course of action turned Iraq into ruins.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead, millions of refugees abroad or internally displaced, and many towns largely destroyed as a result of the war.

The Islamic State (IS) terror group which has engulfed Iraq is also spreading its campaign of brutality to many other countries as a result, threatening regional and international stability.

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