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Chilcot fallout: Iraq war coffins were piling up because we were woefully ill-equipped to go into a war zone

As Chilcot delivers withering assessment of Labour's role in the second Gulf conflict, ex servicemen say government's recklessness put forces in harm's way and cost lives

By Rebecca Black

Published 07/07/2016

Relatives of military personnel killed during the Iraq war during a Press conference yesterday
Relatives of military personnel killed during the Iraq war during a Press conference yesterday
Dawn Holmes holds a picture of a relative
Sir John Chilcot presents his report
The strain shows on former Prime Minister Tony Blair
A woman wears a T-shirt in tribute to Private Lee Ellis
Captain Mark Hale
Former Royal Navy commander Steve Aiken

Northern Ireland veterans who took part in the invasion of Iraq have told how they were "woefully under-prepared" for the conflict.

They were reacting to Sir John Chilcot's report which concludes that the UK went to war in Iraq before all peaceful options for disarming Saddam Hussein were exhausted.

It added that the invasion was based on "flawed intelligence and assessments" that "were not challenged".

DUP and Ulster Unionist MPs backed the invasion in two votes at Westminster in 2003, while the SDLP MPs voted against it.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said his party learned lessons from the Iraq War and revealed that the decision of his party not to support intervention in Syria was "influenced by the lessons of Iraq".

But he cautioned: "We cannot turn our backs on our responsibility to intervene to stop (the) terrorist sponsoring of security-threatening regimes in future.

"Good government has a duty to use force to defend its citizens when occasions justify it; what the story of Iraq highlights is that such a decision must only be taken when all the risks have been fully and honestly explored."

Former Royal Irish captain Doug Beattie - now a UUP MLA - said the Chilcot report "spreads the jam of blame" across many people and organisations, and recalls troops being "woefully unprepared".

"The troops who went into Iraq were badly let down by their political masters," he said.

"They lacked the right equipment and were put in harm's way by those who continued the masquerade of a just and legal conflict right up to the last minute.

"Blame must lie with a number of individuals and organisations. Certainly the then Prime Minister Tony Blair has much to answer for. Those responsible for the dossier that gave us the evidence of weapons of mass destruction - MI6 and MI5 - also have to explain themselves. And others who did not cover themselves in glory include the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Labour cabinet of the day.

"Parliament itself cannot dodge censure. Many MPs allowed themselves to be misled and voted for war. So did our top military leaders. Their collective eagerness to please led to a hurried deployment, beleaguered by a lack of planning and poor force generation."

Mr Beattie said he watched Royal Irish troops conduct themselves in Iraq with "great courage and compassion under difficult conditions".

DUP MLA Brenda Hale - whose husband Captain Mark Hale served in Iraq before his death in Afghanistan - said military families knew the armed forces were not ready to deploy.

"We doubted whether there were weapons of mass destruction and that there was not enough military intelligence - and that came from local knowledge because many knew those in the SAS who had done the intelligence-gathering - but when a Government orders the Army to war, that is what the Army has to do," she said.

Mrs Hale, whose sister also served in Iraq, said the Army was stretched to its limit.

"Mark was deployed to Operation Telic in 2006 with his regiment based at Fallujah," she said.

"For them it was trying to do the peacekeeping because the first Gulf War had already happened, but I think for Mark it was about making sure the troops had enough equipment - body armour, ammunition, and they didn't. They didn't have enough helicopters either.

"Concurrently when he was deployed in Iraq the Army was also in Afghanistan. The armed forces were stretched to the limit, our resources and equipment was stretched to the limit, as well as the man hours.

"Guys were deploying to Afghanistan, and then the next year back to Iraq, then back to Afghanistan.

"My sister was also deployed as a reservist from Bangor to the first Gulf War. She was there for eight months and she came back and had tales to tell about sharing body armour.

"This was costing soldiers their lives, coffins were coming back to the UK because some politician in Whitehall went into Iraq not with a military objective but with a political objective."

Former Royal Navy commander Steve Aiken was based with the US Fifth Fleet on board the USS Abraham Lincoln in the north Arabian Gulf at the outbreak of the Iraq war.

He criticised it as an "ill-conceived campaign based on the faulty premise."

"It was particularly disappointing that Tony Blair, Jack Straw and the rest of the 'sofa cabinet,' having taken the courageous and justified decision to support the US in operations in Afghanistan directly against al-Qaida, became embroiled in Bush and Cheney's neo-conservative conflict in Iraq," he said.

"What is equally unforgivable, having decided to become embroiled in a 'conflict of choice,' they deliberately under-resourced our armed forces and led to the ridiculous and unfortunately tragic situation of our brave servicemen and women being placed in harm's way without access to some of the most basic equipment to defend themselves or complete the mission.

"The British people and in particular, the British armed forces, deserve better."

The brave NI soldiers who laid down their lives

KEN MASTERS

Captain Ken Masters was just five days away from returning to his wife and two young daughters in Portadown when he took his own life in his accommodation in Basra.

The 40-year-old rose to the rank of captain in just 15 years but he struggled to cope with the pressures of life in Iraq.

A series of letters to his wife Alison showed the deterioration of his mental state throughout the six months in Basra. The first, sent on April 11, 2005, described how he was getting settled at the new base.

He said: “The accom is good, it is [an] air conditioned hut [which has] 2 windows either end and a real bed and proper mattress which makes a big difference to comfort. I have continued my running here…  I have also borrowed a laptop computer so I can play DVDs on it. We have pretty much everything we need here.”

Just over a month later, his letters revealed that he was under increasing pressure.

He told Alison that he had been struggling to sleep but he remained optimistic.

He said:  “Hello there and another day, another dollar. I didn’t get a good night’s sleep. It must have been because I was too warm as I kept waking up...

“Our lads have started upsetting a few people while doing their job and a few complaints have come in about how a certain individual spoke to people... Ah well, such is life. It will die down in a few days when somebody has something else to complain about.”

By August, his problems had escalated and he said he was only getting between two and five hours of sleep. An undated letter from August said: “Hello again and a few more lines to tell you how much I am missing you all.

“It’s hard to stay positive in this environment… I am sorry to sound so negative but this place and thing that I am worried about [his belief that his boss thinks he is incompetent] really is getting me down no end.”

Although he was referred to a community psychiatrist nurse, his letters showed that he continued to be racked by self-doubt.

A letter from September said: “I am up and down like a bloody rollercoaster... This place has changed me, it really has, and [it’s] all my own doing….I am really not happy with this place.”

On October 14, 2005, the day before his death, he sent a final message to Alison that said: “I hope u r all well and working hard. I am getting sorted for the handover and as usual I have left everything to the last minute and [am] burning the midnight oil. Not long now though. U and the girls are keeping me going I can tell you. Love you all very much.”

The next day, he went to his small room at the Waterloo Lines military camp and took his own life. He had left two suicide notes: one to the Army, blaming himself for his death, and the other to his wife.

Following his death, his wife fought for better support for soldiers suffering from depression as she said she believed his death “could have been prevented”.

JOHN JOHNSTON COSBY

Corporal John Johnston Cosby was born in Belfast but moved to Exeter with his family when he was eight years old. He went on to join the 1st Battalion The Devonshire and Dorset Light Infantry in 1998.

On July 16, 2006, the 28-year-old and his team were ambushed as they searched premises after arresting a terrorist responsible for attacks on multi-national forces. Corporal Cosby died from his injuries. The inquest into his death heard that fragments of ammunition removed from Cpl Cosby’s skull were from a UK-made 5.56 round, probably fired from an SA80 weapon — the Army’s standard combat rifle.

TIMOTHY DARREN FLOWERS

Lance Corporal Timothy Darren ‘Daz’ Flowers (25), from Londonderry, died from injuries he sustained during a mortar attack on Basra Palace on July 21, 2007.

The Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineer was working on a vehicle park when the blast happened and he was hit by shrapnel.

He grew up in the Waterside area of Derry but had been living with his grandparents in Portstewart before he joined the Army in 2003.

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