Ruling on China’s maritime claims; Ramadan ends with suicide attacks; Hillary Clinton questioned by FBI; two women vying for Tory leadership. By Hamish McDonald.

Chilcot Report drops bomb on Tony Blair and British Labour

Tony Blair responding to the report into the Iraq invasion.
Tony Blair responding to the report into the Iraq invasion.

Britain’s inquiry into its involvement in the Iraq invasion of 2003 and subsequent war came out on Wednesday, and makes uncomfortable reading for the Labour Party, which launched the whole thing while in government under Tony Blair. The inquiry didn’t judge the legality of the war, but said the way in which the Blair government decided that there was a legal basis for military action was “far from satisfactory”.

Sir John Chilcot, a retired civil servant with a background in police and security affairs, took his time (seven years) since being commissioned by Blair’s Labour successor Gordon Brown in 2009. But he slams Blair for exaggerating intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s capabilities in weapons of mass destruction, failing to plan properly for a campaign in which 179 British soldiers died, and utterly failing to exert any influence on then US president George W. Bush over the conduct of the war and its aftermath.

Chilcot said the alliance could have survived robust disagreement. In words that should resonate in Canberra, he said: “The UK’s relationship with the US has proved strong enough over time to bear the weight of honest disagreement. It does not require unconditional support where our interest or judgements differ.”

To Blair, the report constitutes a finding he made no “secret commitment to war” with Bush, and that there was no falsification or improper use of intelligence, nor any deception of the cabinet.

“The report should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit,” he said. Yet Chilcot reveals a telling note by Blair to Bush on July 28 , 2002, well before the cabinet decision to go to war, declaring: “I will be with you whatever.”

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague are now studying Chilcot’s report. But readers of the Robert Harris thriller The Ghost may be disappointed that Blair is unlikely to be indicted. The war crime of “aggression” is still being written into the court’s mandate and won’t be applied retrospectively. So it’s the squaddies who will cop any war crimes follow-up from Chilcot.

1 . Maritime intrigue 

Elsewhere in The Hague, the Permanent Court of Arbitration is set to give its ruling on Tuesday on the case brought by the Philippines against China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Having declared the court has no jurisdiction and it will ignore its ruling, China has been trying to persuade new Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to set aside the decision, with a promise of “joint development and co-operation in scientific research” in the contested areas. Chinese forces have meanwhile told everyone to stay away from military exercises it is holding in the Paracel Islands, an area claimed by Vietnam.

2 . Ramadan ends with suicide attacks  

It’s been a blood-soaked prelude to the end of the Muslim fasting month this week, with Daesh claiming credit or given blame for a swath of suicide attacks from the Middle East to Bangladesh and Malaysia. Most of the victims were fellow Muslims. Ramadan is supposed to be a period of peace, contemplation and forgiveness.

The slaughter hit Shiites, Sunnis and nonbelievers. In Baghdad last Sunday, a car bomb was set off among crowds at the popular Karada centre, killing as many as 215 people, according to Iraqi officials. If the goal was to shake remaining confidence in Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, it worked. He had to explain why security agencies were still using bomb detectors supplied by British fraudsters that were known to be useless. 

On Monday, militants attacked three targets in Saudi Arabia, including the tomb of the prophet Muhammad in Medina and the United States consulate in Jeddah. The attacks were blocked but several security guards died. Turkey suffered its biggest blow from Daesh the previous week, when three attackers shot at departing passengers then blew themselves up. They killed 45 people and wounded hundreds.

The frenzy comes as the territory of the Daesh “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria shrinks under attack from a variety of opponents, including the US and its allies such as Australia. But Daesh prepared for the loss of its Sunni paradise with a call to its supporters to attack enemies wherever possible and by any means. 

The response is intensifying in our region, as well as in Europe and the US. The Jakarta shootings in January have been followed by a grenade attack on a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur on June 28. Malaysian police say it was ordered by a known local Daesh militant. Until now, visa-free Malaysia has been left alone as a haven and transit point by Islamist terror groups active in surrounding countries.

The July 1 killing of 20 foreign hostages taken in a Dhaka cafe − Italian garment buyers, Japanese engineers and others, who failed a Koran recital test − has revealed the penetration of Daesh messages even among well-educated young Bangladeshis. Among the seven attackers, six of whom died, along with two policemen, was the son of an MP in the ruling party of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. All spoke in refined Bengali or English. One appears to have attended Monash University’s campus in Malaysia; others a prestigious local university. 

Police have been investigating an older British citizen of Bangladeshi descent who was at the scene and, as a Muslim, released during the attack. He’s an engineering academic who may have taught one of the attackers. If he’s implicated, it would add to the finding of two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, that engineers have an unusually high representation in terrorist groups. Their new book reports that more than twice as many members of violent Islamist groups have degrees in engineering than those graduating in Islamic studies. They postulate this reflects a mentality trying to impose the order of physics on the complexity of society.

Bangladesh has become a battleground between the secular nationalism of Hasina, daughter of founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the breakaway from Pakistan in 1971, and a rising Islamist opposition. In recent months there has been a string of assassinations of liberal bloggers and activists, followed by a wave of arrests of suspected Islamist extremists. 

Hasina’s latest spell in office has seen special trials held for crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence. Two figures from the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party, which tended to support staying with Pakistan, have gone to the gallows. Bangladeshi politics is an endless saga of revenge, military coups, and assassination, so Daesh has plenty of fertile ground. 

3 . Hillary’s hot seat

Hillary Clinton spent three hours in the hot seat at the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters last weekend to explain her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state in Barack Obama’s first term. On Tuesday she got a clearance, sort of, from FBI director James B. Comey.

Comey declared that though there were “potential violations of the statutes” on handling classified information, “no reasonable prosecutor” would seek to indict her. Then he went on to give a rebuke that will be gold for Donald Trump in the presidential campaign. Clinton and her staff “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” and “it is possible that hostile actors gained access” to Clinton’s email account and top-secret information contained within.

4 . Tories torn 

Britain’s Tories wrangled over their leadership this week, with Home Secretary Theresa May emerging with just over half the votes of Conservative MPs. 

A second ballot was due on Thursday with Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom expected to emerge as one of two rival candidacies to be put to party members, with a decision by September 9. May backed the campaign to remain in the European Union; Leadsom was strongly for leaving. May wants a delayed exit, Leadsom a quick one.

Nigel Farage, meanwhile, has declared “mission accomplished” with the June 23 referendum vote to leave the EU, and bailed out of the leadership of the UK Independence Party. He is staying in the European Parliament, it seems, where he enjoys a salary of some €8000 a month, a monthly expenses allowance of €4299, per diem in Strasbourg of €304, staff allowance of up to €19,709 a month (his wife is on the payroll as private secretary), and generous travel. Having been a member since 1999 he can expect a generous Europension if and when Britain leaves the EU. Meanwhile it’s all a splendid platform for his sprays at EU extravagance and perks.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2016 as "Report drops bomb on Blair and Labour".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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