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It’s time for accountability on Iraq

Sgt. Auralie Suarez and Private Brett Mansink take cover during a firefight with guerrilla forces in the Al Doura section of Baghdad on the 7th of March. U.S. Army

Yesterday we learnt that the report of the UK’s Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war will not be delivered until the second half of 2013, over two years after its initial scheduled date of May 2011. The latest delay is caused by a stoush with Whitehall (the British public service) over the disclosure of key discussions in the leadup to war between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W Bush.

It is obviously a shame that such an important inquiry has been delayed. As a lawyer, I am particularly interested in the ultimate findings regarding the disconnect of the advice given on the legality of the war by international lawyers in the Foreign Office (ie. it was illegal in international law) and the advice presented by the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith to the British Cabinet and Parliament (ie it was legal in international law). And of course, there is the question of why the Coalition of the Willing was so adamant that Saddam Hussein possessed significant caches of weapons of mass destruction.

But hey, at least the UK is having an inquiry. No such inquiry seems to be on the horizon in the US. Regarding Australia, Professor Ben Saul of the Sydney Law School has lamented the “bipartisan agreement to bury the inconvenient past”. Quite strange, considering the vast numbers of Iraqi dead, and the fact that the waging of the war was, according to most international lawyers, an illegal act of aggression. As Saul eloquently puts it:

In the long sweep of history, I have no doubt that our children will scratch their heads and wonder why we attacked Iraq. They may well be puzzled about why there was no reckoning for those who took us there, and no justice for the innocent dead. I hope it gives them pause before mounting their own cavalier escapades to smash foreign governments and kill their peoples.

Indeed, Tony Blair seems to have learnt little, given he spent much of his Chilcot evidence talking about the possible need to wage war with Iran.

Emma Sky, a former political adviser to Ray Odierno when he was the US’s most senior general in Iraq, also argues that politicians should be held accountable for “the decision to go to war, and the lack of strategy and planning for its aftermath – the consequences of which are still being felt”.

It may seem to us in the West that the world has moved on from the Iraq war. That certainly isn’t true for Iraqis. Nor is it true for military casualties and their families. An inquiry into Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war would not be digging up the past. Rather, it would be an exercise in holding people accountable for flawed decisions with catastrophic consequences, as well as a process which should help to guard against repeat behaviour.

Chillingly, Sky has warned that the Iraq war may continue to haunt the West as anger at the West’s actions could provoke revenge attacks by “some Muslims brought up in the last decade”. While foreign policy mustn’t be tailored to suit fanatics, it shouldn’t be geared towards creating enemies.