Royal Irish veteran reflects on war in Iraq ahead of the Chilcot report

File photo dated 26/09/03 of British troops from the 2nd Battalion Light Infantry during an evening patrol targeting oil smugglers at a gas and oil separation plant in Rauallah, Southern Iraq
File photo dated 26/09/03 of British troops from the 2nd Battalion Light Infantry during an evening patrol targeting oil smugglers at a gas and oil separation plant in Rauallah, Southern Iraq

Tony Blair’s actions in leading the UK to war in Iraq “will be damned” when the long-awaited Chilcot report is published today, a Royal Irish Regiment veteran of the conflict has said.

The former Labour prime minister was instrumental in convincing MPs that Saddam Hussein was producing chemical and biological weapons – resulting in a Parliamentary vote to back the 2003 invasion.

Soldier-turned MLA, Captain Doug Beattie MC, said the UK was ill-prepared for the full-scale operation and had its military reputation damaged as a result – but said “that pales into insignificance compared to the many thousands of ordinary Iraqis who have suffered” because of the conflict.

“I think the Chilcot report will damn not just Tony Blair and his cabinet, including the Foreign Office and Home Office, but it will certainly have a go at the security agencies MI5 and MI6.

“And also MPs for allowing themselves to be persuaded to vote for the country to go to war,” he said.

A regimental sergeant major working under Colonel Tim Collins at the time of the invasion, Mr Beattie said a shortage of body armour was one of the first signs that all was not well.

“There wasn’t enough, and there was no [appropriate] clothing for the soldiers. There were no desert boots and there was no ammunition for some of the weapons,” Mr Beattie added.

Sir John Chilcot’s report will be published seven years after it was commissioned by Mr Blair’s successor Gordon Brown. In setting out the case for war in a 2002 dossier, Mr Blair said that UK intelligence had “established beyond doubt” that the Iraqi dictator had weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat.

Much of what was in the controversial dossier has been shown to be incorrect and Mr Blair has faced much criticism over his government’s actions leading up to the invasion which resulted in the deaths of 179 UK military personnel – as well as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives during hostilities.

There have been numerous calls from some quarters for the former Prime Minister himself to be put on trial as a war criminal.

Speaking to the News Letter yesterday, Mr Beattie said: “I also think the report will have a sizeable chunk on military leaders who were far too eager to please, and who said they could go to war although we didn’t have the capability or the capacity...including the provision of equipment for soldiers, the intelligence reports, and all of the other things you would expect.

“We knew that the planning wasn’t there. We were a part of 16 Air Assault Brigade...but we crossed the border [from Kuwait into Iraq] in cargo trucks.”

The Ulster Unionist representative, who was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly from Upper Bann in May, has previously spoken candidly of his experiences with the Royal Irish – including an incident where he bayoneted an enemy fighter to death during a battle at Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2006. He calls the memories “the stuff of nightmares”.

The experienced combat veteran has also served in Bosnia, Kosovo and east Africa.

“I think our preparation for war [in Iraq], our prosecution of the war, and our subsequent operations to try to secure the peace are going to be pretty well criticised also in the Chilcot report.

“The most damning will be that the UK’s military reputation has been severely damaged by that little endeavour – but that pales into insignificance compared to the many thousands of ordinary Iraqis who have suffered because of what went on.”

The aim of the wide-ranging Iraq Inquiry was to identify lessons that could be learned from the invasion and the military operation that ran from March 20 to May 1, 2003.

The aftermath of the conflict continued up until the end of July 2009.

Ahead of Chilcot’s findings, Mr Beattie said: “So how relevant is the report now?

“Tony Blair has long been vilified by the nation as the single man to blame for allowing himself to be persuaded by the Bush administration into dragging the United Kingdom to war.

“All the report will now do is formally disclose the Prime Minister was ill-advised by his service chiefs, the intelligence community and those closest to him in government.”