Seven years after it began, the official inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war was finally reported on Wednesday with former prime minister Tony Blair facing severe criticism. The Chilcot inquiry launched in 2009 as British troops withdrew from Iraq, tasked with investigating the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion and the subsequent occupation.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis died during the conflict and the brutal sectarian war that followed, while 179 British soldiers also lost their lives — many of whose relatives are still searching for answers. The invasion was controversial at the time as it did not have explicit approval from the UN Security Council, while claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction proved unfounded.
Although he stepped down in 2007, Blair remains reviled by much of Britain for the conflict, which is viewed as at best misguided, and as worst a war crime. A 2004 official report into the intelligence case found he exaggerated the evidence when he presented it to MPs, although author Robin Butler on Monday said that Blair "really believed" what he was doing was right.
The Chilcot inquiry was not asked to rule on the legality of the invasion, but leaks suggest Blair will be heavily criticised over the decision-making process. His critics are already lining up against him, with former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond gathering cross-party support for an impeachment or possible legal challenge. Impeachment is a law that was last used in 1806 and is considered obsolete, but could be revived to put a symbolic mark on Blair's reputation in the history books.
Blair declined to comment before the report, but has previously expressed regret for the lives lost. However, he said he did not regret removing Saddam Hussein.
Chilcot inquiry: Some facts
The final report by career diplomat John Chilcot runs to 2.6 million words — more than four times the length of Tolstoy's War and Peace — and cost over £10 million (11.9 million euros, $13.3 million) to produce.
More than 120 witnesses gave evidence during months of public hearings, including Blair, his successor Gordon Brown, spy and military chiefs and ministers.
The inquiry was meant to take a year but took seven, longer than the war itself, and during which period one member of the five-strong panel died.
The report was delayed by wrangling over what could be published, including correspondence between Blair and the US president George W Bush, as well as the need to give key figures prior warning.
The inquiry was called under pressure from bereaved relatives, many of them angry at the poor equipment given to British troops.
Notable among these were the lightly-armoured Snatch Land Rover vehicles, which were nicknamed "coffins on wheels" for their lack of protection against roadside bombs.
Lawyers representing relatives of 29 British troops that died said they would scrutinise the report for evidence of neglect of duty or misconduct in public office.
This could form the basis of legal action against Blair, his ministers or the government in general, a spokesman for McCue and Partners solicitors told AFP.
The International Criminal Court, which was petitioned at the time to examine possible evidence of war crimes, said on Monday it will consider the report as part of its preliminary examination to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to open an investigation.
However, the legality of the war is outside its jurisdiction.
The report, looks at close to a decade of decisions and policies by the UK and its involvement in the 2003 war. The report looks in why UK decided to go to war, if the troops were trained and what sort of planning ensued in the aftermath of the war.
The report found that UK joined the war even though there were other peaceful options still available, the inquiry report makes it amply clear that the military action taken by the UK was definitely not the last resort.
"In the absence of a majority in support of military action, we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council's authority".
"We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort".
Iraq leader, Saddam Hussein, also didn't pose a threat, reveals the report. Among the documents to be published are reportedly 29 letters sent by Blair to US president George W. Bush, and some record of conversations between the pair. Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2002 told US President George W Bush that he would support him — a statement that has drawn sharp criticism from the media.
"I will be with you, whatever," said Blair's note to then US president George W Bush on July 28, 2002 — nearly a year before the March 2003 invasion.
"By early January (2003), Mr Blair had also concluded that 'the likelihood was war'. At the end of January, Mr Blair accepted the US timetable for military action by mid-March," the report said.
The report concluded that Blair "set the UK on a path leading to diplomatic activity in the UN and the possibility of participation in military action in a way that would make it very difficult for the UK subsequently to withdraw its support for the US."
Blair "did not press President Bush for definite assurances about US plans, did not consider or seek advice about whether the absence of a satisfactory plan called for reassessment of the terms of the UK's engagement and did not make agreement on such a plan a condition of UK participation in military action".
Chilcot said spy chiefs "should have made clear to Mr Blair that the assessed intelligence had not established 'beyond doubt' either that Iraq had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued".
But he was more cautious about the dossier on Iraq's weapons which was released by Blair's 10 Downing Street office in September 2002 and has become a focal point for criticism of the plan for war.
Turns out, there were no severe security threats posed by Iraq's 'weapons of mass destruction' either. "There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that Number 10 improperly influenced the text," the report found.
The US-led invasion was deeply controversial at the time as it did not have explicit approval from the UN Security Council, while claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction proved unfounded.
Chilcot was not asked to rule on the legality of the invasion, but leaks suggest Blair will be heavily criticised over the decision-making process.
His critics are already lining up against him, with former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond gathering cross-party support to bring legal action or symbolically impeach him.
Blair apologised last year for the fact the intelligence was wrong, and for mistakes in the planning, but said he did not regret removing Saddam Hussein.
In essence, the intelligence was inadequate on Iraq and yet the war plans were drawn.
However, responding to the report, Blair said, his voice breaking with emotion in a speech in central London. "I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe."
He added: "As the report makes clear there were no lies, parliament and cabinet were not misled, there was no secret commitment to war..The intelligence was not falsified and the decision was made in good faith."
"Despite the intelligence failures and other mistakes he has acknowledged previously, President Bush continues to believe the whole world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power," Bush's spokesman Freddy Ford said in a statement.
"He is deeply grateful for the service and sacrifice of American and coalition forces in the war on terror. And there was no stronger ally than the United Kingdom under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair."
A long shadow over UK foreign policy
Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the Chatham House think tank notes that Britain had moved towards working with military forces in the region, such as Jordan and the Gulf states, rather than taking action itself. "The problem is that these forces are still not very strong," she said.
But John Bew, reader in history and foreign policy at King's College London, said Iraq had had a paralysing effect, accusing Britain of having a "non-policy" in Syria for many years. "We stopped thinking seriously about how to manage down violence, how to stabilise the neighbourhood, how to do things like potentially humanitarian corridors, how to put more diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime," he said.
"There is a vacuum in Western foreign policy," he told AFP. "We haven't addressed Syria and Libya on their merits so much as having a re-run about debates over Iraq. And at some point that has to stop."
The neo-conservative think tank the Henry Jackson Society also warned against retreating further following the publication of the Chilcot report.
"There are many significant failings and lessons to be learned from the Iraq war, as with any conflict," said its executive director Alan Mendoza. "But one lesson that must not follow is that intervention is wrong, or that we are somehow responsible for the totality of the turmoil in the Middle East today." His comments echo those made by former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, the man who took Britain into the war and recently called for Western countries to send in ground troops to defeat the IS group.
For Iraqis, a British war inquiry criticising former premier Tony Blair means little as, whoever is to blame, they are still suffering the devastating consequences of the 2003 US-led invasion.
The Chilcot report was released just days after one of the deadliest bombings ever to hit the country tore through a crowded shopping area in Baghdad, killing at least 250 people.
The attack was claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group, which includes members of Saddam Hussein's toppled regime and has its roots in the insurgency that began after the dictator's overthrow in 2003.
The 2.6 million-word report resulting from an inquiry chaired by John Chilcot, which was seven years in the making, criticised Blair as having taken his country into a badly planned, woefully executed and legally questionable war.
While the report was hotly anticipated in London and has sparked widespread commentary and media attention, the reaction in Baghdad has been somewhat more muted.
"What report?" Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal responded when asked for comment. For Iraqis, the inquiry is little more than a distant academic exercise. "The report... will not change anything — all this is empty talk," said Zainab Hassan, aged 60.
Abbas Salman Mahdi, 56, said the report's conclusion was somewhat less than surprising.
"Of course Britain and America made a mistake in taking part in the war," Mahdi said. But "this report will not change anything for Iraq," he said.
Ali al-Alaq, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's Dawa party, said whether or not the decision to topple Saddam was correct, it was made and cannot be undone.
"After all this time, I don't believe that this report will have an impact," Alaq said.
"They carried out their mission and toppled Saddam's regime, whether this decision was correct or not, and it had major effects on Iraq," he said.
The invasion that overthrew Saddam — and a series of disastrous decisions by Washington and its allies that followed — set the stage for 13 years of bloodshed that plagues the country to this day. Chief among these were the decisions to disband the Iraqi military and launch a "de-Baathification" programme targeting members of Saddam's party, both of which contributed to the rise of a bloody insurgency.
But the countries that toppled Saddam are not solely responsible for the current disastrous state of affairs.
Politicians bent on power, self-enrichment and revenge instead of building a viable state, as well as neighbouring countries that backed various armed groups, also played key parts in creating the hellish circumstances in which Iraqis now live.
More than a decade after the fall of Saddam, the Islamic State group overran large areas north and west of Baghdad, sweeping government forces aside and carrying out a slew of atrocities. The offensive drew the US and Britain, among other countries, back into Iraq to carry out air strikes and provide training and other assistance to help Baghdad regain lost ground.
Despite all that has since transpired, Blair asserted following the release of the report that he "made the right decision and the world is better and safer" because of it. It is a claim that the huge number of Iraqis who have lost relatives and friends, who have made daily trips to the morgue searching for the missing, who have faced bombings and death squads and kidnappings, would likely dispute.
Ghaith al-Ghaffari, 26, said he too does not believe the report will change anything, and that he would rather see concrete action on the part of those responsible.
"I would like them to truly contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq after they made this mistake," Ghaffari said. "At the least, it is their duty to truly rebuild the country," he said.
With inputs from AFP