Mike Phipps reviews Parliament’s debate on the Iraq war.
Three months later than the actual anniversary of the war in Iraq, left MPs managed to secure a parliamentary debate on an issue most would rather not talk about. Caroline Lucas introduced, saying:
It is a grim understatement to say that the Iraqi people do not have security. There are deep concerns about human rights, massive corruption, unemployment and miserable basic services, such as electricity and water supplies. But even if Iraq finds a way out of its current difficulties, as we all fervently hope it will, there is the legacy of the last 10 years of warfare and terrorism as well. Part of that legacy is the deeply disturbing cases being taken to our High Court, involving more than 1,000 killings and acts of torture committed in Iraq by UK forces. We must have public scrutiny of the systemic issues arising from these cases and look to reform the training and oversight of our armed forces.
What of our own country? Do we feel more secure? Is the terrorist threat diminished because of those 10 years of bloodshed and chaos? In fact, the contrary is true. According to the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the Iraqi invasion increased the terror threat in Britain, radicalising a generation of young British Muslims and substantially increasing the risk of a terrorist atrocity on UK soil. A major unprovoked attack without UN authorisation took place with dire consequences. These terrible and deeply troubling outcomes add real substance to the argument that this was the biggest foreign policy failure of recent times.
As an individual, I opposed the war in Iraq because it was my view that the burden of justification for undertaking a major unprovoked attack had not been met. I joined the anti-war protest in February 2003, which saw between 1 million and 2 million people marching in London, the biggest political demonstration in history. In successive polls by different and reputable agencies, around two thirds of British citizens say the Iraq war was a mistake.”
The Government’s position was predictably pathetic, cheerily quoting IMF reports about Iraq’s recent economic growth – hardly surprising given the long years of economic sanctions the west imposed on it before invading, and at the same time hiding behind the years-overdue Chilcot Report in terms of UK culpability.
In response to Caroline Lucas’s suggestion that future voted on going to war be unwhipped, Jack Straw and others suggested the whip on this issue ten years ago was pretty informal. Paul Flynn MP responded:
“I have received a message during the debate from someone expressing, in very strong language, incredulity at the suggestion that there was not a strong Whip on that day in March. I have been here for 26 years and it was the strongest Whip I have ever encountered. Many of those who were opposed to the war—about 30 or 40 of them—who had signed motions and early-day motions against it were bribed, bullied and bamboozled into changing their minds to either abstain or vote in favour of it. Almost all of them regret that bitterly. It was the most important vote of our careers and it is not true to say that it was easy to make our minds up. It was not. The threat was there that we would lose our seats and that the Prime Minister would resign. Members who were in any doubt were called in to see Ministers to be persuaded. Members of the Committees who had knowledge that we did not have, such as the Intelligence and Security Committee, went around cajoling Back Benchers saying, “If you knew what we know, you’d vote for war, but we can’t tell you because it’s all secret.” They were being fed nonsense and exaggerations as well.
Our reluctance to accept the truth seems extraordinary to me. It would be flattering to describe today’s speech from the Government Front Bench as vacuous. Even now, the Government cannot admit that there were no weapons of mass destruction. It is little short of insanity to suggest that anyone still believes that there were such weapons.
Members have questioned whether anyone foresaw what would happen. A great many people foresaw it at the time. To suggest otherwise is another attempt to rewrite history. I have dug out a letter that I sent to the then Prime Minister in March 2003 to point out what the consequences of the invasion would be. I see with nausea that Tony Blair is now explaining that the inherent nature of the Islamic religion was responsible for the terrible event that took place in Woolwich a few weeks ago. It was not. That event was a reaction to what happened in 2003.”
The following are just extracts from speeches that can be read in full here.
Jeremy Corbyn MP:
“It was a shameful day for Parliament, and it was a shameful day for the whole political system in this country. Outside in Parliament square, there were thousands of people. They thought, naively perhaps, that they would be listened to. Some 1 million and more had marched in central London—maybe 2 million were on the streets of London that day—and 600 demonstrations on every continent of the world, including Antarctica, had been held a month before, and the opinion polls all showed that there was no support for this war against Iraq. They thought that Parliament would reflect their views and their wishes.
The vote that day in which Parliament, sadly, endorsed going to war not only did enormous damage to Parliament, but did enormous damage and a disservice to a whole generation, because they had put their hopes in the political process to carry out their wishes and it did not do so. That engendered cynicism and we are still dealing today in many ways with the legacy of the war in this country.”
Katy Clark MP focused on
“the effects of depleted uranium and other weaponry used in Iraq. It seems to have resulted in very unusual levels of birth defects and other conditions, especially among children who were conceived during the Iraq war. I intend to focus on those issues mainly because they are not often talked about and because those are issues on which the Government could be taking more action so that we can understand what happened and learn the lessons from that for the future.
The use of depleted uranium in weapons has been controversial from its development in the 1960s to the present. Much of the work in this area has been done on the effects on veterans, rather than on civilian populations. The Ministry of Defence discovered in the early research and development programme that depleted uranium released a chemical that was toxic and radioactive and that contaminated areas that it had been fired into. The scientific work that has been done, as I said, related mainly to veterans, but in recent years more evidence has been collected from civilian populations, including in Iraq.
The work relating to veterans shows clearly that in certain circumstances depleted uranium has the potential to cause cancer and damage to DNA. It can lead to birth defects and contaminate soil and ground water. Depleted uranium was used in the first conflict in Iraq in 1991 and also in the more recent conflict in very significant quantities. It is thought that 290,000 kg of depleted uranium was fired during the Gulf war in 1991, and that in the first six months of the Iraq invasion 140 kg of depleted uranium was used. Studies of the effects on civilian populations which have been made public so far show a staggering rise in birth defects among Iraqi children conceived in the aftermath of the war, with high rates of miscarriage, toxic levels of lead and mercury contamination and spiralling numbers of birth defects ranging from congenital heart defects to brain dysfunctions and malformed limbs. Compelling evidence seems to link these birth defects and miscarriages to military assaults.
We cannot sure whether these are due to depleted uranium or the effects of other ammunition used in the area, but it is clear that there are particularly high levels of birth defects, for example, in Falluja, where the United States has admitted using white phosphorous shells, although it has not admitted using depleted uranium. Findings published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology are the latest in a series of studies suggesting a link between bombardment and a rise in birth defects. Its findings in 2010 prompted the World Health Organisation to launch an inquiry into the prevalence of birth defects in the area affected. Although that report was expected to be published last year, it still has not appeared. Some claim that it is being buried and 58 scientists have written to the Iraqi Government and the World Health Organisation calling for its immediate publication. It is right that we, as elected politicians, ask the British Government to use their influence and power to do everything they can to ensure that as much information about these issues is brought into the public domain.
As a result of previous work, the Work Health Organisation is looking at nine high-risk areas in Iraq, including Falluja and Basra. We need to say clearly that we want that information in the public domain. We must do more to work out exactly the impact that some of the weaponry used in modern warfare has on civilian populations. Perhaps in previous centuries the effects of war were felt predominantly by military people and those who went to war, but one of the clear effects of modern warfare is that many of the types of weaponry used have long-term implications for civilian populations.
Of the studies that have been made available in the public domain, one shows that more than half of the babies born in Falluja between 2007 and 2010 were born with a birth defect. Before the siege the figure was more like one in 10, and prior to the turn of the millennium fewer than 2% of babies were born with a birth defect. According to that study, in the two years after 2004 more than 45% of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriage, whereas the figures before the bombing were below 10%. Between 2007 and 2010, one in six of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage. The research that is in the public domain is clearly incredibly concerning.
Another piece of research looked at the health histories of 56 families in Falluja and examined births in Basra in southern Iraq, which was attacked by British forces in 2003. It found that more than 20 babies in 1,000 were born with births defects at the maternity hospital in 2003, which is 17 times higher than the rate recorded a decade previously. In the past seven years, the number of malformed babies born has increased by more than 60%, to 37 in every 1,000.
We have spoken a great deal today about the politics that led up to the decision to take forces into Iraq in 2003, and that is absolutely proper, but the reality is that families in Iraq are now dealing with the aftermath of decisions that might have been taken by the British Government and the action of British and other troops. I think that it is beholden on Parliament to insist that the Government do everything they can to ensure that this is researched more thoroughly.”