Memories of the Iraq War
Former UK Diplomat Arthur Snell writes about his role in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the invasion of Iraq and the shame and regret he now feels
In this piece, the former UK diplomat, and author details his experiences as a junior official in the run-up to the Iraq War, and reveals the shame he still feels about the disastrous reality that greeted him upon his own arrival in the country.
Beginnings: “There’s a lot you don’t know about”
“That might have been the case then, Arthur, but we know a lot more now.” A very senior national security official was talking to me, de haut en bas, dismissive, patronising, but still patiently.
It was March 2003 and the US, with the UK in a significant supporting role, was about to invade Iraq. I was a very junior diplomat, still in my mid-twenties. At that stage of my career, having direct contact with people at the top of the British ‘deep state’ was an unusual opportunity, particularly, as on this occasion, when I had them to myself. So I had taken my chance: my question was: “how come we now think Saddam has all this WMD when a few years ago we’d concluded there was nothing serious left?”
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Whilst I was inexperienced, on this particular subject I had a slight advantage: on joining the Foreign Office my first job had been on the Iraq Desk, from 1998 to 2000. At that time, in the prelapsarian world before the 9/11 attacks, the thought of an invasion of Iraq would have seemed outlandish. We had a (very tough) containment policy which held Iraq under the strictest sanctions. Regular UN inspections meant that, if Saddam Hussein had serious weapons programmes, they would be discovered. But he didn’t, and we had intelligence that confirmed this.
From 2001 to 2003 I was posted to Abuja, Nigeria and had no access to sensitive information on Iraq. But I still remembered what we had known a couple of years earlier. So when, in the autumn of 2002, reports started to emerge in the press that British intelligence had discovered that Saddam still maintained an active biological weapons programme with battlefield weapons deployable in 45 minutes, I was instinctively sceptical. And when I got the chance to raise it with someone in the know, I was genuinely keen to understand what had changed.
Being told that everything was now different wasn’t, to my mind, sufficient, so I tried again. “Okay,” I asked, “so if there is all this WMD in Iraq, how come the UN inspectors haven’t found any? I know the UK is sharing intel with them. Why aren’t they finding anything?” Another patronising smile, another sigh of condescension. “Arthur, that’s mostly thanks to the UN’s incompetence. But rest assured, they will. There’s a lot happening that you don’t know about.”
I didn’t participate in the invasion phase of the Iraq war. Shortly after my meeting with that overconfident Mandarin, I went to Yemen where I worked until 2004. I knew that I would probably go to Iraq eventually: there was a huge demand for the limited number of Arabic speakers in the Foreign Office to work there. And as civilians, unlike the military, we were all there as volunteers. Whilst I had doubts about the mission, it still felt like the right thing to do. As a young man, unmarried and with a strong sense of adventure, I felt more excited than nervous, although I definitely felt that too.
The journey was one of strange contrasts. As a civilian I got to fly to Kuwait in luxurious business class. On arrival the instruction was to wait at the Starbucks in the arrivals hall. This seemed an unlikely start to a journey into a war zone, but there were other people clutching the telltale holdall that carries your body armour, so I knew I was in the right place. Kuwait was just like any other Gulf petro-state, all gleaming skyscrapers and soulless highways full of speeding traffic. We were shepherded into a shabby bus and driven across the city to a tented military base at the edge of a huge airfield, searingly hot even in the early morning sunshine.
The camp was signature British military - uncomfortable, with lots of aggressive signs made up on an office laminator telling you what not to do. Periodically someone in a uniform would shout at the civilians for not understanding the arcane language spoken by the armed forces. The only refreshment was the standard army ‘brew’ - industrial strength tea. And you did what is so often the experience of war - you sat and waited. In this case the waiting was in a marquee sized tent that had air conditioning but still managed to be insufferably hot. A television was rigged up at one end, playing, seemingly on a loop, a pirated DVD of Team America. For those unfamiliar with this particular piece of cinematic history, it is a darkly satirical film depicting, with puppets, the worst of American militarism and also the worst of celebrity self-importance. I look back on my time in Iraq and regard Team America as surprisingly accurate.
Eventually the time came to board the flight from Kuwait up to Baghdad, on an RAF Hercules. We were told to wear our body armour in case a lucky shot from insurgents penetrated the fuselage. An old guy who clearly wasn’t in his first war said you should sit on the armour in case the shot came from underneath. This seemed a good idea but I didn’t want to disobey the clear instructions from the RAF loaders. The threat to aviation was real - another Hercules had been shot down about a month earlier, killing everyone on board. I had been warned about the landing in Baghdad, but it was still a surprise: the plane flew over the airport at high altitude, out of range of insurgents’ missiles. Then the pilot would execute a spiral dive, so steep that you felt your bottom lifting out of your seat as you got close to zero gravity.
By 2005 the illusion that invading Iraq would create a thriving democracy was well and truly over. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was fully operational under Abu Musa’b Al-Zarqawi, targeting Shi’a Iraqis which dominated the new government. A sectarian civil war had broken out with Sunni Iraqis in turn targeted by government security agencies, many of which operated in full co-ordination with the Iranians. In the midst of this mess, a bewildering array of insurgents targeted Iraqis, coalition military, foreign aid workers, diplomats and anyone else they could get their hands on.
My own job was supposedly to support Iraqi agencies’ ability to counter the insurgency and tackle terrorism. But we were often blundering in the dark. I remember one occasion when we discovered that the Iraqi interior ministry, which we were trying to work with, had been keeping hundreds of Sunni prisoners in an underground bunker, where they were alternately starved and tortured.
Much of the political leadership in London and Washington preferred delusion to the grim reality. AQI was dismissed by Donald Rumsfeld, the neocon defense secretary in George W Bush’s cabinet, as a purely foreign affair: Tunisians, Saudis and Algerians had come to Iraq to spoil things for the Iraqis who were happy to have had their country liberated. We were told that no Iraqi had carried out a suicide bombing. When intelligence emerged proving that this was not the case, the report was suppressed, as “Washington isn’t ready to see this yet.”
London wasn’t much better: I remember a very senior Whitehall Mandarin accusing those of us on the ground of “indulging in fashionable pessimism”. At the time, there were numerous suicide bombings - every day - in Baghdad. They were so frequent that only the big ones were really worth talking about. On one occasion I was in an Iraqi government building that was targeted by a car bombing. Some of the guards on the ground floor were killed, and windows were blown out. But we basically behaved as if nothing much had happened. But these things leave a mark. On another occasion I heard that telltale bleeping that trucks make when reversing. Moments later a huge explosion caused windows to rattle. I ran to see what was going on. An immense truck bomb had targeted another government building, and I vividly remember the billowing dust clouds, slowly growing into the sky, like a scene from a movie. I assume the suicide bomber had for some reason found it easier to reverse his truck towards the target. To this day, whenever I hear a truck making the reversing sound, a bit of me instinctively braces for a huge explosion.
The Emerald City
Oddly, a lot of the time life was pretty fun. The international crowd inhabited the so-called Green Zone, a huge walled area in the centre of the city where Saddam had once had his main palace. This fortified cantonment was the centre of America’s imperial administration, and it was full of young people, many of them having fun, partying like there was no tomorrow. It was very possible that there was no tomorrow. The Green Zone itself was largely safe, save the occasional mortar fired in by insurgents. And that was because it was heavily policed, with ordinary Iraqis not allowed in.
There were, occasionally, nervous moments: one evening there had been a large event at the British Embassy. As people stood outside in the cool night air the sky erupted with literally thousands of weapons firing. It was coming from the city - small arms, heavy machine guns, tracer rounds lighting up the night sky. For a brief moment I wondered if this was the moment when the insurgency stormed the Green Zone. Was this it? Then someone explained that Iraq had beaten Syria in the football and people were celebrating in the traditional way: by firing their weapons into the air. On a massive scale.
The fate of ordinary Iraqis is the most important bit of this story. As a foreign diplomat, I interacted with them daily in my work, but there was no way of getting to know people as you would in any other setting. Particularly in Iraq, where hospitality is such a key element of the culture, it’s sad to think of the number of times I refused offers, simply because our failed occupation had rendered the country unsafe.
Nonetheless, my work took me out of the Green Zone regularly. Sometimes this was by helicopter, or in armoured convoys where you saw Iraq from a distance, behind armoured glass. On other occasions it was necessary to travel in the lowest profile possible, using ordinary vehicles and without a big security detail. At these moments, waiting to clear security checkpoints, knowing that these were targeted by AQI suicide bombers daily, remains the most stressful experience of my life. There was also a huge kidnap industry in Baghdad at the time, with the highest value hostages being fed through to AQI. Your fate would be to be held for several weeks, appearing in hideous videos before being beheaded on camera, as happened to Ken Bigley, among others. Another great risk was trigger-happy US soldiers, understandably nervous in the most dangerous city on earth, shooting at anything that moved, friend or foe. A senior Italian intelligence official died this way during my time.
Of course, whatever privations and risks we outsiders suffered were as nothing to what ordinary Iraqis lived through every day. I knew Iraqis whose children were kidnapped, whose relatives had been assassinated or died in bombings. Some communities, particularly religious minorities such as Mandaeans, were effectively brought to an end after thousands of years of surviving in Iraq. The Christian population, one of the largest and oldest in the Middle East before the war, collapsed. And then there were those that were wrongly arrested, their houses raided by coalition forces, their wives and children terrorised.
The violence was such that Iraqis couldn’t believe that America, the undisputed global superpower, was unable to stop the chaos. So, understandable but damaging conspiracies began to circulate: America was in league with Iran. America was in league with AQI. The depressing truth was just that America, and its allies, were incompetent.
There’s plenty that I haven’t written about my time in Iraq: some by choice; some because of legal restrictions on me as a former government official. In my book How Britain Broke the World I try to go into more of the policy detail, particularly the flawed intelligence supplied by the UK that made the war a possibility.
The losses from the Iraq war are literally incalculable. Half a million Iraqis may have died. Once you factor in the subsequent conflicts in Syria and with ISIS, which directly resulted from the 2003 invasion, the numbers become devastating. And this was a war of choice, a war of aggression justified on a false premise of ridding Iraq of WMD it didn’t have. We could have worked this out in 2003. But we weren’t willing to give the UN inspectors time to do their jobs, even though what they were doing was vital. I don’t believe that Tony Blair and George Bush were cynical liars. It is not their fault that they were misled by their supposedly world-class intelligence agencies. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Iraq war was a monstrous war crime of unimaginable proportions that has poisoned our world in ways that persist to this day. As a participant in that process, albeit at a low level, I look back with shame, and the deepest regret.
I also look back with sorrow, for those Iraqis who lost so much, and for those Britons that I worked with who never got to come home. Nothing we do will ever make up for that. And I don’t believe that anyone in western countries will pay an appropriate price for the devastation that has been meted out on the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shows that he also was unable to learn the lessons. I write this on the day that the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Putin, not that anyone expects it to be carried out. Twenty years on, the history of the Iraq War seems to tell us that the biggest crimes are the easiest ones to get away with.
Arthur Snell is a former diplomat, host of Doomsday Watch podcast and author of "How Britain Broke the World". This post was first published on his Substack .