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Bishop defends Australia's Iraq role

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The Australian Government takes full responsibility for its decision to back the US-led 2003 war on Iraq in the wake of Britain’s scathing Chilcot report into the conflict, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says.

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“It was based on information, the best information that we had at the time. I was in the party room. I recall very well the information that was presented to us,” she told Seven Network’s Sunrise today.

The seven-year UK inquiry into the invasion and search for weapons of mass destruction found the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was overplayed, intelligence was flawed and the legal basis for the war was unsatisfactory.

Overnight in London, former UK prime minister Tony Blair denied he had given former US president George Bush a “blank cheque for war”.

He pleaded for people to stop saying he had lied about the intelligence that formed the basis of the then-Labour government’s decision to follow the US into Iraq and expressed his “profound regret” to the families of UK soldiers who had died.

Asked if former prime minster John Howard should also apologise to the Australian people, Bishop said that was a matter for him.

“The Australian government – both Labor and Liberal – the Australian parliament would take responsibility,” she said.

“I recall very well at the time Kevin Rudd [who was then Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman] urging us to continue to support the United States. So it was a bipartisan position up to a point in relation to Iraq.”

A March 2003 diplomatic cable sent by the British Embassy in Canberra to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office outlines the UK view of the Australian parliamentary debate at the time.

It records how then US president George Bush called Howard on March 18 to make the formal request for Australia to participate in a future military intervention in Iraq.

Howard convened a cabinet meeting ahead of a live national television broadcast announcing Australia’s decision to commit troops to any US-led coalition to disarm Iraq.

He also agreed to table in parliament the text of legal advice given to the government by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Attorney-General’s Department.

Howard described this advice as being “consistent” with that given to the UK government which – the cable said – the embassy had “fed in to his office this morning and which he also tabled”.

Labor, led by Simon Crean, condemned the coalition government’s decision, arguing “that involvement would spawn terrorism and greatly increase the risk of terrorist attacks on Australian soil”, the cable said.

Australia later asked Iraqi diplomats in Australia to leave the country.

The UK inquiry, led by Sir John Chilcot, disclosed that Britain’s foreign spy agency concluded within months of the invasion of Iraq that two key intelligence reports it had received about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were fabricated.

SIS concluded that its original source for the material ‘was a fabricator who had lied from the outset’

In September 2002, the Secret Intelligence Service, known as SIS or MI6, distributed to senior British officials the reports it had received from its sources, alleging that Iraq had “accelerated the production of chemical and biological agents”.

The reports said Saddam was determined to maintain a chemical and biological weapon capability, according to the inquiry.

The reports were issued as top US officials, including President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, were publicly claiming that Saddam had acquired aluminium tubes used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons – a claim later discredited by post-war US investigations.

In early April 2003, only days after the US military, supported by British and other allied forces, invaded Iraq to oust Saddam, details from the SIS reports from September were included in a larger spy report circulated widely around the British government.

This report did contain a caveat that since a key “sub source” had not been directly contacted by SIS, it would not be possible to “verify fully” all the details of his claims.

By June 2003, however, SIS finally met the source of the September reports, who “denied that he had provided any of the material attributed to him”, Chilcot’s report said. SIS concluded that its original source for the material therefore “was a fabricator who had lied from the outset.”

By the end of July 2003, SIS had decided to withdraw the alarming reports from the previous September.

Even then, however, the Chilcot report quotes an internal spy document in which an SIS officer says: “Without denying these reports are no longer valid, we need to ensure their withdrawal does not provide wide-spread scepticism about our CW (chemical weapons) reporting, particularly in the absence of a CW find.”

No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. By September 2004, SIS withdrew additional key intelligence reports used by British and American leaders to justify the invasion.

These included a source’s claim, touted by Blair’s government, that Saddam could deploy WMD within 45 minutes, and a claim from a source known as Curveball, leaked to US media and then publicly touted by Bush, that Saddam had mobile biological and chemical weapons labs.

Please stop saying I was lying or I had some sort of dishonest or underhand motive

But Blair, whose legacy as a three-times election winner for the centre-left Labour Party has been overshadowed by years of accusations that he had lied to exaggerate the intelligence case for war, said today that the report vindicated his “hardest, most momentous and agonising decision”.

He faced hostile questioning from national and international media, who said his assurances to former George Bush had amounted to a “blank cheque for war” and that he had abandoned diplomatic channels too easily.

In response, during a 109-minute news conference, Blair was at times contrite and emotional, and at other times clearly angry at the way his actions had been portrayed.

“If you disagree with me fine, but please stop saying I was lying or I had some sort of dishonest or underhand motive,” he told reporter.

“‘You lied about the intelligence’ – that’s what people say the whole time,” Blair said.

“Actually if people are being fair and read the whole report, that allegation should be put to rest, because it’s not true and it never was true.”

In a statement, Blair sought to address the full spectrum of criticism levelled at him, saying he accepted total responsibility “without exception or excuse”.

He acknowledged failing to adequately plan for the aftermath of the invasion which triggered sectarian violence and protracted British military involvement.

In six years, more than 150,000 civilians and 179 British soldiers died.

But he disputed one of the report’s key findings; that diplomatic options had not been exhausted at the point he decided to join the US invasion, saying he had faced a “binary” decision which could not have been delayed.

Drawing his media appearance to a close after more than an hour of questions, he said that on the basis of the information he had at the time, he would take the same decision again.

– Reuter/AAP

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