Soon after the occupation of Iraq, the British and Americans took action to stimulate the local press, television and radio, judging a multifarious media to be one of the essential ingredients of a successful democracy.
Tony Ball, the former chief executive of BskyB, who had recently stepped down, spent some time pro bono in Iraq assessing what supplementary information sources should be provided from outside, such as a revived BBC Arabic service. This meant that there were now at least half a dozen local television crews waiting for the prime minister on his final trip to Iraq, as well as radio reporters providing live coverage. As a result, it had become impossible to keep Blair’s presence or his movements a secret.
Therefore, as Prime Minister Blair travelled about Iraq for the last time he had become a serious target. There were mortar attacks coinciding with his presence at three locations. The first was at his initial stop on the itinerary — the former Baghdad school complex now used as the British embassy. As his convoy drew up there was a burning 4×4 in the car park outside the front door. Photographers in the party were banned from taking pictures.
However, two so-called "legacy teams", Dan Chung and Martin Amis of Guardian Weekend and Nick Danziger and Robert Crampton of the Sunday Times Magazine, were travelling with the prime minister at the time and confounded Downing Street’s attempts to deny that an incident had taken place. An hour or so later the same teams reported that the military headquarters had come under attack several times while Blair was receiving a briefing from the US Commander, General David Petraeus.
Between these attacks Tony Blair held his last, chaotic and tetchy news conference in Iraq. The chosen venue was a small room, deeper into the main Iraqi Government building beyond the antechamber. It was so cramped that the ring of tripods and cameras at the front totally blocked out questioning reporters unless they clambered on top of furniture. Blair stood at one podium with Prime Minister al-Maliki and President Talabani alongside him.
Blair spoke of "difficulties and challenges": "Plainly the security situation remains very difficult but on the other hand there are real signs of change and progress also". He admitted, " … there are more mortar attacks and terrorist attacks happening every day. That’s the reality. The question is what are we going to do in the face of those attacks … the answer is we don’t give in to them … The fact is even with all the difficulties it’s not the only story about what is happening in Iraq. And let’s not forget one part of the progress which is here we are in the middle of Baghdad with a press conference with a free press able to ask its questions — of me and also of the Iraqi prime minister, huh?"
Al-Maliki said little. The Iraqi President rather optimistically claimed that "the situation is improving" and that, while 10 to 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces used to be subject to violence, now it was only two or three. Even some parts of Baghdad were "totally liberated", he stressed.
During the brief question period that followed, Tony Blair lost his temper — the first time I had seen him do so at a news conference in the 13 years since he became Labor leader. One of the gifts which drove Blair to the top of politics was that he was "bomb-proof" under the fire of questions from journalists. But that day in Bagdhad, Blair’s subjective account of the progress being made was confronted by the objective reality all around the heavily and haphazardly fortified Green Zone.
Reporters, both those from the travelling British party and those based in Iraq, cited the continuing violence and terrorism and wanted to know precisely what were "the improvements" in the situation that Blair was referring to. He talked of how Iraq had been "liberated from a terrible dictatorship" and was now facing "an attempt to repress it in a different way fuelled by external forces". But he became increasingly agitated when pressed to cite specific "improvements". He did not seem to be able to come up with any examples. Instead he kept exclaiming, "Don’t ask me, ask them," gesticulating vigorously in the direction of his hosts. All diplomatic courtesies were set to one side and in the heat of that moment it seemed as though he had forgotten the names of the Iraqi politicians beside him. Neither al-Maliki nor Talabani rushed in to back up Blair.
The mood did not lift on the Hercules flight to Basra or at British Command headquarters there. The prime minister worked through the usual programme of briefings from the brass and chats with the troops. There was no mood of excitement on either side. Blair worked the room, listening sympathetically to stories of operational life in Iraq and views of what was needed. Then he spoke at the microphone for a few minutes. He seemed as concerned by how this performance was being seen as by what was actually happening. "This is my last chance to thank you for the work you’ve done here … the impression is given that everything is completely negative …" It all felt a bit bleak — a sense confirmed by Blair’s answer to his embedded legacy reporter Robert Crampton’s question, "How long will it take for it not to be a mess?": "I dunno. You can’t tell. It will resolve itself, it just will. People will get sick of the killing."
An hour or so remained for fraternisation, but as the prime minister continued his tour, the air-raid sirens sounded. The order came to take cover and don helmets and flak jackets. All duly scurried to the command, except for Blair who wore neither. Inside the building you could hear the loud "crump" of a mortar landing and exploding not so far way.
According to later reports, the missile struck the tarmac close to the Hercules transport plane that carried the prime minister back to Kuwait shortly afterwards. There the party transferred immediately during the darkness of early evening in the desert on to the private jet back to London. On this occasion British Airways had been unable to provide an aircraft. For this journey to the Middle East, Number 10 had hired a plane from Royal Jet, a service owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family.
The cabin crew were used to deferring to hierarchy. Blair and his aides were ensconced in luxurious first class. The legacy profile journalists were in the next section, in large leather-upholstered lean-back seats. The regular UK reporters were crammed into cattle class economy seats at the back. Tired, fed up and parched, the hacks exchanged angry words with the cabin crew, who ignored their needs — instead shuttling past them from the galley at the rear with endless trays of canapés and champagne for the front of the plane. Eventually the reporters raided the galley, liberating food and drink for themselves.
As had become Blair’s habit during his latter years in office, there was no exchange of pleasantries with the accompanying journalists on the journey home; we did not see him again once he boarded at the front of the plane. If he chose to take it, the flight back to Britain would have provided him with ample time to ponder alone quite how the tragedy of Iraq had enveloped his premiership. The journalists in the stern debated rather less grimly how the invasion had precipitated the story they were now covering: the end of Blair.
Iraq was the pivot on which the Blair decade swung. His foreign policy in the four years prior to 2001 seemed almost a preparation for the excited, engaged "liberal interventionism" which characterised his hyperactivity through 2002 and until the Iraq invasion in 2003. Blair’s slow decline began almost as soon as Baghdad was liberated.
The taint of failure came from connected but separate factors which hit him over a long period, in two successive waves. Peculiar to Blair, given the case he had made for going to war, were the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the presumed suicide of the British weapons inspector David Kelly and the argument over the government’s use of intelligence. These became major issues first, almost simultaneously with the invasion.
Subsequently, both Blair and Bush were assailed by greater issues of more general concern — the inability to stabilise Iraq and the ensuing sectarian and terrorist chaos inflicted on its people; and the American failure to live up to their own human rights standards in Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere, especially in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, established at the time of the Afghan invasion of 2001.
This meant that unlike George Bush Tony Blair underwent continuous political pressure, confronting major dissent over Iraq, both from within his own party and from the wider public. This held from 2002, when the first intimations of an attack on Saddam were crystallised by Bush’s "axis of evil" State of the Union Address, right up until the time Blair left office.
In the first half of 2004, a crisis of confidence meant Tony Blair seriously considered quitting; while at the same time in the United States, George Bush was cruising to re-election and a consolidation of his mandate thanks to "Security Moms" and their ilk.
Blair overcame his internal doubts and soldiered on until 2007, but he was able to do so only by paying a significant price. Most obviously, he made the political concession not to "go on and on", and because of his political weakness gave up any hope of moving against Brown.
Much more significantly, the intractable issues thrown up by Iraq when the facts didn’t match what Blair would have liked them to be, transformed his approach to politics. He fell to the politics of assertion, no longer interested in making arguments and fencing with the media. He became a "conviction politician" who insisted he was right even if he couldn’t prove it.
As he put it to me himself during an extended interview on Iraq on 15 March 2007: "You know, I’m not [pause]I’ve long since ceased in all this to pander to anyone’s opinion on it. I mean I do not regret either the strength of our alliance with the United States or standing by the US president and the American people in the aftermath of 11 September and I’m never going to do that."
This is an edited extract from Tony’s Ten Years by Adam Boulton (Simon & Schuster).
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