British companies have benefited from the award of oil contracts in Iraq because of the decision to help to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Gordon Brown’s chief foreign policy adviser told the Chilcot inquiry yesterday.
Simon McDonald said British companies had “done pretty well” in a recent auction of oil rights and that Britain had “privileged access” to the Government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister.
“I do think we have privileged access and I do think that they take account of our views in reaching sovereign decisions,” Mr McDonald told the inquiry.
“I think they have also given us credit when making key commercial decisions — so in the recent auction of oil rights British firms did pretty well.” Mr McDonald said Britain was praised in Iraq for helping the country at a crucially important time and that there would be “lasting benefits for that”.
But he revealed that London had not been informed of the Iraqi Army’s operation in March 2008 to remove Shia militias from Basra, which had been controlled by British Forces.
Mr McDonald said the operation, called Charge of the Knights, had delayed plans to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq from 4,000 to 2,500 until the end of 2008.
“[The Iraqi operation] did take us by surprise and we were not happy at the time in our initial reaction,” Mr McDonald told the inquiry.
“But we quickly reflected and concluded that this an example of the Prime Minister of Iraq taking charge of the vital business of Iraq. So we decided, with the Americans, it was in our collective interest to support it.” The inquiry will hear evidence in secret about a “ceasefire” agreed earlier between British military commanders and the militias, which had allowed troops to withdraw to Basra airport.
Mr McDonald said he believed that Britain’s reputation in the Middle East had been enhanced by the invasion of Iraq.
“It is a part of the world that respects a country which is prepared to put its forces where its mouth is,” he said. “Our key strategic relation is with the United States, and what we did in Iraq has helped that relationship.”
Earlier the inquiry heard that Downing Street called the British Ambassador to Iraq almost daily to demand that the country be stabilised after the invasion so that troops could be transferred to Afghanistan.
Sir William Patey, Ambassador to Baghdad in 2005-06, said that for the first time in his career he received instructions directly from the Prime Minister. But he said that there was a “disconnect” between Tony Blair’s politically motivated demands and the situation faced by British Forces fighting an insurgency in Basra and the south of the country.
“The politics here demanded instant results,” he told the inquiry, “[It was] the first time I have ever had instructions as an ambassador directly from the prime minister … to help get a constitution that the Iraqis would vote positively for, the formation of a new government, create the conditions for the withdrawal of British troops. It was quite simple.”
He added: “They were quite reasonable instructions, provided you realised that they weren’t in my gift or solely in the gift of the British Government.
“There was a tension between the desire for instant results and the realities on the ground. What you could achieve in the sort of timescales that London needed for political reasons — there was a disconnect.”
Sir William said that he was horrified by reports of the Iraqi Interior Ministry operating “death squads” to murder rivals and of the discovery of brutal government detention centres.
There was a breakdown of the rule of law, with the police controlled by political militias or criminal gangs. Military action was required to free three British soldiers who had been seized by police in Baghdad and handed over to a militia.
Sir William, who is now Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said military commanders faced political pressure to “get quick fixes” while also having to create long-term stability for the country.“I don’t think the tensions ever reached breaking point,” he said.
“I understood the frustration. I was quite frank back about the level of ambition and achievement. There was a healthy balance — them pushing for us to achieve more and us explaining the reality.“There was a sense, obviously, if we were able to reduce our presence in Iraq there would be headroom to reinforce our forces in Afghanistan.”
Sir William said that British forces in Basra would have liked more helicopters to deal with the worsening security situation but they had not beenwere not available.
“It would have been nice to have had more helicopters for the military, but, as you have seen elsewhere, you can’t just conjure up helicopters very easily,” he said.
Sir William said in particular he had been under pressure from Downing Street to engage with the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who was leading an insurgency against international coalition forces.
“There was rarely a day went by when I did not have a phone call from No 10,” he said. “I was encouraged by No 10 to reach out to the Sadrists to give them the message that we felt they had a place in the political system.”
But he acknowledged that his efforts had had only limited success. “Moqtada refused to see me throughout my time there and every Sadrist I did see seemed to lose their job very soon afterwards,” he said.
Vice-Admiral Charles Style, who was the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Commitments), told the inquiry that the “tremendous appetite” from Whitehall for detailed information about what was happening on the ground made it difficult to take a long-term strategic view of the situation.
“It was not so much a question of micro-management, but there was an awful lot of inquisitive concern and interest in a great deal of detail in terms of attempting to understand exactly what was going on almost minute by minute,” he said.
General Sir Nick Houghton, who was Chief of Joint Operations, said that from 2006 there was pressure to wind down British force levels in Iraq to concentrate on the new mission in Afghanistan. “We did not have the means to deliver on the objectives [in Afghanistan],” he said.
“The imperative that came out of the military strategy demands of my superior headquarters was to rebalance in order to gain strategic coherence in Afghanistan.”
The inquiry continues.