Iraq war emboldened Osama bin Laden and radicalized Muslims: former MI5 chief

Britain's former MI5 chief delivered a strong critique Tuesday of the reasons for entering the Iraq war. Her testimony before the Chilcot Inquiry panel contradicts that of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

By , Correspondent

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Britain's former MI5 chief harshly criticized the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying Tuesday that her spy agency warned that Saddam Hussein had no known links to Al Qaeda, that Iraq posed little threat, and that some in a generation of British Muslins had been radicalized by the action. 

"Arguably we gave Osama bin Laden his Iraqi jihad, so that he was able to move into Iraq in a way that he was not before," said Eliza Manningham-Buller, director of MI5 – Britain's rough equivalent of the FBI – from 2002 to 2007.

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Ms. Manningham-Buller's statements to Britain's Chilcot Inquiry panel, which is investigating the country's involvement in the Iraq war, are seen as a dramatic criticism of the testimony former Prime Minister Tony Blair gave to the panel earlier this year supporting the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Al Jazeera reports that the panel has been "marked by politicians and former senior British government officials either defending positions or, perhaps, massaging history to fit their purpose," which is why Manningham-Buller's words "came as a significant intervention." She testified that her agency saw Iraq as a "very limited" or "containable" threat, Al Jazeera adds.

The Guardian calls it a "devastating critique." The newspaper has also reprinted a declassified letter (see here) she sent to John Gieve, permanent secretary at the Home Office, a year before the Iraq invasion. In it, she wrote that there was "no credible evidence" to suggest a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

War radicalized British Muslims

Manningham-Buller said in her testimony that after the war her office became overburdened with intelligence on new threats against the United Kingdom and that Iraq became a "single narrative" for many in a generation of British Muslims to see the West as attacking their faith and become radicalized. She revealed for the first time that up to 80 Britons had relocated to Iraq to join the insurgency, the Associated Press reports.

"Our involvement in Iraq radicalized, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people – not a whole generation, a few among a generation – who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam," she said.

The rise of homegrown terrorism threats was so marked after Britain's entry into the Iraq war that her agency asked for, and received, a 100 percent budget increase, she added, according to The Independent.

Standing up to Blair

There was no evidence of a link between Hussein and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to Manningham-Buller, and the focus on Iraq reduced the focus on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. She criticized Mr. Blair's justification for the war – that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction – saying instead the idea that Iraq would use such weapons against the West "wasn't a concern in either the short term or the medium term to either my colleagues or myself," the Associated Press reports.

The Independent notes that her words undercut those of Blair, who told the panel: "If I am asked whether I believe we are safer, more secure, that Iraq is better, that our own security is better, with Saddam and his two sons out of office and out of power, I believe indeed we are." Manningham-Buller's contradiction of the former prime minister who led Britain into the war could make it more difficult for the current government to review current terrorism laws, The Independent notes.

Manningham-Buller has often stood up to politicians since she left the MI5 spy agency in 2007, the Financial Times notes. Already this year she voiced anger about the Bush administration's torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, saying: "The Americans were very keen that people like us did not discover what they were doing."

She said in her testimony there was "inadequate challenge" to the predominant thinking on Iraq before the war within the joint intelligence committee – which she sat on – the Financial Times adds. Manningham-Buller also says that she never got to have one-on-one meetings with Prime Minister Blair, and that, in hindsight, she should have challenged the war more, Al Jazeera reported.

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