Tony Blair might have been put off Iraq war by violent aftermath, says adviser
• Government shocked by level of post-war violence
• Inquiry asks if invasion hurt Britain's reputation
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* Richard Norton-Taylor
* guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 16 December 2009 20.11 GMT
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Sir John Sawers gives evidence to the Chilcot inquiry
Sir John Sawers gives evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. Photograph: AP
The Blair government might not have invaded Iraq had it envisaged the scale of violence it might provoke, Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6 and former adviser to the prime minister, said today.
Very few observers predicted the violence produced by a combination of jihadists, former Ba'athist officials who had melted away immediately after the invasion, and Shia extremists supported by Iraq, he told the Chilcot inquiry.
"Frankly, had we known the scale of the violence, it might well have led to second thoughts about the entire project," said Sawers. "It was not thought through."
Sawers, who was an adviser to Tony Blair and spent three months as Britain's special envoy in Baghdad in 2003, said the only person he could think of who got it right was Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who warned the conflict would create "100 new Bin Ladens".
An inquiry panel member and former top diplomat, Sir Roderic Lyne, asked today's witnesses whether the war was worth the "very high cost" and whether Britain's reputation had suffered.
Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Blair's foreign policy adviser between 2003 to 2007 and now UK ambassador in Washington, replied: "That is a very difficult decision and a very difficult debate. I can't answer it even now. It depends who you are talking to and whether publicly or privately."
He said he was sure that the reputation of British military forces had been enhanced. "But of course there are areas of the Muslim world where what we did was extremely controversial."
Sawers replied that there was "not a clear-cut answer" to the question of the war's effect on the UK's reputation. He said Iraq was now a better place and the Iraqi people were "enormously grateful" for the efforts of the British and Americans to liberate them from Saddam Hussein.
Earlier, Sheinwald said Britain had expressed concern about the impact of US military tactics in the Iraqi town of Falluja in February and April 2004. Britain was concerned about the prospect of "US marines going in with all guns blazing", said Sheinwald.
There was concern that the US would exacerbate Sunni and Shia insurgencies in both the centre and south of Iraq. The issue was "one of the key things" on the agenda of Blair's agenda at a meeting with George Bush in the US in April that year, Sheinwald told the Chilcot inquiry. It was known, and reported, at the time, that defence chiefs urged Blair to warn Bush of the consequences of US attacks on Falluja, including the use of white phosphorus.
According to previously leaked documents about the April 2004 White House meeting between the two leaders, Bush was so angry about attacks on US soldiers that he allegedly suggested that the offices of the Arabic satellite TV station al-Jazeera should be bombed.
A leaked Foreign Office memo entitled Iraq: The Medium Term, dated 19 May 2004, referred to "heavy-handed" US tactics. General Sir Mike Jackson, then head of the army, said: "We must be able to fight with the Americans, but that does not mean we must fight as the Americans."
Sawers told the inquiry that spring 2004 was a low point for those in Britain responsible for policy on Iraq. "It was then that we realised the scale of the task that was ahead of us and the need to really put our heads down and be in it for the longer term," he said.
Referring to the abuse of Iraqi detainees by US soldiers, he added: "The Abu Ghraib issues just added another nasty twist to the difficulties that we faced." As for Britain's role in occupying southern Iraq, Sawers told the inquiry: "We had no plan for handling Basra when we went in".