I’d like to start today by remembering and honouring the 179 British servicemen and women killed and the thousands wounded during the Iraq war and their families as well as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq launched by the US and British governments 13 years ago.
I have just had a private meeting with some of the families of the British dead as well as with war veterans and Iraqis who have lost family members as a result of the war as I have continued to do over the past dozen years.
It is always a humbling experience to witness the resolve and resilience of these families and their unwavering commitment to seek truth and justice for those they lost in Iraq.
They have waited seven years for Sir John Chilcot’s report.
It was right that the inquiry heard evidence from such a wide range of people and that the origins, conduct and aftermath of the war should have been examined in such detail.
But the extraordinary length of time it has taken to see the light of day is clearly a matter for regret and has weakened its capacity to hold those responsible to account.
There is no doubt that the decision to invade and occupy Iraq in March 2003 was the most significant foreign policy decision taken by a British government in modern times.
It divided parliament and set the government of the day against a majority of the British people as well as against the weight of global opinion.
The war was not in any way as Sir John Chilcot says a “last resort”.
It was an act of military aggression launched on a false pretext as the inquiry accepts and has long been regarded as illegal by the overwhelming weight of international legal opinion.
It led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and the displacement of millions of refugees.
It devastated Iraq’s infrastructure and society.
The US-British occupation led to a lethal sectarianism that turned into a civil war. Instead of protecting security at home or abroad, the war fuelled and spread terrorism across the region including in the countries that launched it.
Sunday’s suicide bomb attack in Baghdad which killed over 250 people, the deadliest so far, was carried out by a group whose origins lie in the aftermath of the invasion.
By any measure, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a catastrophe.
The decision to invade in 2003 on the basis of what the Chilcot report calls “flawed intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction has had a far-reaching impact on us all.
It also led to a fundamental breakdown in trust in politics and our institutions of government.
The tragedy is that while the governing class got it so horrifically wrong the majority of our people called it right.
On February 15th, 2003 along with over 1.5 million people spanning the political spectrum and tens of millions of others across the world, I and many others marched against the impending war in the biggest demonstration in British history.
It wasn’t that we underestimated the brutality or crimes of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
Many of us campaigned against the Iraqi regime during its most bloody period when the Thatcher government and the US administration were busy supporting and arming it as confirmed by the 1996 Scott Inquiry.
We could see that this state broken by sanctions and war posed no military threat that the WMD evidence was flimsy and confected that going to war without UN authorization was profoundly dangerous that foreign invasion and occupation would be resisted by force and that it could set off a series of uncontrollable and destructive events.
If only the majority of MPs had listened to the wisdom of our own people when they voted on 18th March 2003 against waiting for UN authorization through a second resolution the course of events might have been very different.
There are a large number of MPs in parliament today including dozens of my Labour colleagues who voted to stop the Iraq war.
But none of us will take any satisfaction from this report. Instead, all of us will feel saddened at what has been revealed and what we must now reflect on.
The report has dug deep into the litany of failures of planning for the occupation the calamitous decisions to stand down the Iraqi army and dissolve the Iraqi state.
But the reality is it was the original decision to follow the US president into an unprovoked war in the most volatile region of the world and impose a colonial-style occupation that led to every further disaster.
The government’s September 2002 Dossier with its false claim that Iraq possessed WMD that could be deployed in 45mins was only the most notorious of the deceptions.
As Major General Michael Laurie told the inquiry:
“We knew at the time that the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war rather than setting out the available intelligence.” It goes without saying that never again should intelligence be fixed around policy – instead of fixing policy around intelligence and legality.
Military action in Iraq not only turned a humanitarian crisis into a humanitarian disaster it also convulsed the entire Middle East region and beyond just as military intervention for regime change in Libya in 2011 left the country in the grip of warring militias and terror groups.
And the Iraq war increased the threat of terrorism to our own country as Baroness Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5 made clear to the inquiry.
There are many lessons that need to be drawn from the Iraq war and the investigation carried out by the Chilcot Inquiry for our country, government and parliament as well as for my party.
They include the need for a more open and independent relationship with the United States particularly as we face the prospects of a new and potentially more hawkish presidency and for a foreign policy based on upholding international law and the authority of the United Nations which seeks peaceful solutions to international disputes.
We also need much stronger oversight of the security and intelligence services full restoration of proper cabinet government and to give parliament the decisive say over any future decision to go to war based on objective information not through government discretion but through a War Powers Act.
Finally, we need Britain to join the 30 countries including Germany and Spain that already support giving the International Criminal Court the power to prosecute those responsible for the crime of military aggression.
There are no more important decisions a Member of Parliament ever gets asked to make than those relating to war and peace.
The very least that MPs and the country should be able to expect is rigorous and objective evidence on which to base their decisions.
We now know that parliament was misled in the run-up to war and MPs should now decide how it should deal with that 13 years later just as all those who took the decisions laid bare in the Chilcot report must face up to the consequences, whatever they may be.
As I said earlier, I have just been meeting a group of families of military servicemen and women who lost loved ones, Iraq war veterans and Iraqi citizens who lost relatives as a result of the war, that the US and British governments launched in 2003.
I apologized to them for the decisions taken by our then government that led this country into a disastrous war.
It’s a disaster that occurred when my party was in government, 140 of my then colleagues in the parliamentary Labour party opposed it at the time, as did many many party members and trade unionists.
Many more have since said that they regret their vote. My fellow MPs who voted for war in 2003 did so on the basis of loyalty to the government and information and intelligence which the Chilcot report has again confirmed to have been false.
They were misled by a small number of leading figures in the government who were committed to joining the US invasion of Iraq come what may and were none too scrupulous about how they made their case for war.
Politicians and political parties can only grow stronger by acknowledging when they get it wrong and by facing up to their mistakes.
So I now apologise sincerely on behalf of my party for the disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq in March 2003.
That apology is owed first of all to the people of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost and the country is still living with the devastating consequences of the war and the forces it unleashed.
They have paid the greatest price for the most serious foreign policy calamity of the last 60 years.
The apology is also owed to the families of those soldiers who died in Iraq or who have returned home injured or incapacitated.
They did their duty but it was in a conflict they should never have been sent to.
Finally, it is an apology to the millions of British citizens who feel our democracy was traduced and undermined by the way in which the decision to go to war was taken on the basic of secret ‘I will be with you, whatever’ understandings given to the US president that have now been publicly exposed.
Our society has also suffered from its consequences. Community relations have been compromised and damaged civil liberties have been undermined and the menace of terrorism has grown as a result.
The Labour party has learned the lessons. One of the three main pillars of my election as Labour leader nine months ago was for a different kind of foreign policy.
So I commit Labour to uphold international law to seek peaceful solutions to international disputes, to respect the role and authority of the United Nations and always to treat war as absolutely the last resort.
The decision to go to war in Iraq has been a stain on our party and our country but we now have the chance to work together to build more constructive and mutually beneficial relationships with the rest of the world based on cooperation, peace and international justice.