How we nearly stopped the war

IssueFebruary - March 2023
Placards for peace marching to Westminster, Central London, on one of the biggest demonstrations ever held in the UK, 15 February 2003. PHOTO: BEN SUTHERLAND (CC BY 2.0)
Feature by Milan Rai

Could the anti-war movement have prevented the US-UK invasion of Iraq in March 2003? I think there was a real possibility, slim though it was.

In my view, the British anti-war movement came very close to halting British participation in the invasion – and derailing the war entirely.

Well, that’s not only my view. Just days before the war began, the British government told the US government that it might be forced to pull out of the invasion force. Britain’s ministry of defence frantically began preparing plans for this scenario on ‘Wobbly Tuesday’.

It is possible that if the British anti-war movement had done just a few things differently, Britain could have been knocked out of the invasion force – and the US might have been forced to make a history-changing delay of even just a few days.

“The war might not have taken place if the British could have followed the example of the people of Turkey”

The war might not have taken place if the British could have followed the example of the people of Turkey. The war might not have taken place if a crucial UN weapons inspectors’ document had got the attention it deserved.

Before we get to that, it is worth repeating one of Noam Chomsky’s points about the Iraq anti-war movement of 2002 – 2003: that it had never happened before in the history of imperialism that there were major demonstrations and massive opposition (even in the war-making countries) before a war started.

Chomsky argued that the level of domestic and international opposition had an effect, preventing the US from using saturation bombing by B-52s or chemical weapons, as it had in Vietnam. ‘Iraq is a horror story but it could have been a lot worse,’ he said in 2009.

The long run-up

How did we get to ‘Wobbly Tuesday’, on 11 March 2003?

The starting pistol for the war went off in January 2002, when US president George W Bush made his State of the Union address, naming Iraq, North Korea and Iran as the ‘Axis of Evil’, and singling out Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as the main threat.

However, it soon became clear that anti-war feeling in the country was too strong for the US to go it alone, it needed to be part of an international coalition. That meant Bush was dependent on the involvement of the British government.

However, the anti-war movement in the UK was also quite strong, meaning that British prime minister Tony Blair was forced to pursue a UN security council resolution that explicitly authorised the use of force against Iraq.

The trouble was that the anti-war movements in the countries of the security council were too strong to allow Britain and the US even to line up nine positive votes for a war resolution, never mind the vetoes of other permanent security council members.

It was the search for this UN resolution, forced on the US by the British anti-war movement, that dragged out the pre-invasion period for so many months. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was quoted as telling a friend: ‘I am learning to hate the British.’

In the United States, there is a War Powers Act (1973) requiring congressional approval of US military action, either before or immediately after the use of force has begun. (The congressional vote approving the Iraq War took place in the US months beforehand, in October 2002.) There is no such law in the UK, so there did not legally need to be a parliamentary vote – the power to make war belongs to the monarch and is used by the government as a ‘royal prerogative’.

It was a sign of the strength of the anti-war movement in Britain, both inside and outside the Labour party, that Blair was forced, very reluctantly, to hold a vote in the House of Commons on 18 March, the day before the invasion took place, asking for parliamentary approval for the war.

If that vote had gone differently, the British military would have had to withdraw from the invasion force, and that might have led to a short delay in the US assault, which could have had huge consequences for Iraq.

Destroying UNSCOM

To understand why a short delay could have been so important, we need to understand something about the inspection process.

As everyone knows, the 2003 war against Iraq was justified by the US and UK governments in terms of Iraq’s alleged stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

As everyone also knows, no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons were actually found in Iraq after the 2003 war – not even WMD development programmes.

It is worth pointing out again that just possessing chemical or biological or nuclear weapons does not provide a legal or moral justification for another country to invade you.

British vice-admiral sir James Jungius KBE observed in a letter to The Times (11 January 2003): ‘Even if the weapons do exist, where is the evidence of intent to use them? War is too important and unpleasant a business to be undertaken on the basis of a hunch, however good that hunch may be.’

Rather than supporting the return of UN weapons inspectors, as the people who could uncover Iraq’s WMD, the US was extremely hostile. A senior US Senate foreign policy aide was brutally frank, talking to Time magazine (13 May 2002): ‘The White House’s biggest fear is that UN weapons inspectors will be allowed to go in.’ It wasn’t just the hawks, the biggest ‘dove’ in the administration also turned against the inspectors. US secretary of state Colin Powell said, on 22 January 2003: ‘The question isn’t how much longer do you need for inspections to work. Inspections will not work.’

Time had reported earlier (in April 2002) that the ‘principals’ in the Bush administration ‘fear that Saddam is working his own UN angle for the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq, whose presence could make the US look like a bully if it invades.’

The inspectors would be an obstacle to war, and therefore they had to be brushed aside.

A previous inspection agency, UNSCOM (the UN Special COMmission), had had to be shut down in 1999 after it emerged that CIA officers inserted into the inspection team had carried out a number of operations for US intelligence, including installing spy equipment to monitor Iraqi military communications without the knowledge or consent of the UN, and identifying the residences and offices of all Iraq’s top leaders, which were then all targeted by US-UK airstrikes in December 1998.

The US effectively sacrificed an inspection agency and its weapons monitoring system – and seriously damaged the UN nonproliferation system as a whole – in order to pursue its own military and political agenda.

Because of the scandal, the UN set up a new agency to carry out weapons inspections in Iraq: UNMOVIC (the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission).

History repeated itself.

The inspectors return

Speaking to the United Nations in New York on 12 September 2002, Bush demanded that the UN take action against Iraq – but he did not ask for UNMOVIC to be let into Iraq. Instead, he made five provocative demands of Iraq, and offered this reward: if Iraq complied with all the demands, the UN would help to build a new government in the country – in other words, regime change.

Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, wrongfooted Bush by immediately saying the inspectors could return to Iraq ‘without conditions’.

The fact that they did not immediately start work in Iraq has nothing to do with the Saddam regime and everything to do with the US and Britain, which decided that it was time to draw up harsh new rules and procedures for weapons inspections in Iraq, eventually writing UN security council resolution (UNSCR) 1441.

The new procedures were designed to be so objectionable and difficult that Iraq would either reject them (keeping the inspectors out) or fail them (justifying war).

For example, weapons inspectors were now given the power to take any person connected to Iraq’s WMD or ballistic missile programmes, ‘and family members’, out of the country for interview. Like the other new policies, this was very difficult for the Iraqi regime to accept.

However, Saddam once again accepted the unacceptable.

After some months, Iraq began co-operating with the inspectors in a way it had never done before, including destroying missiles, warheads and launchers. This led the head of UNMOVIC, Hans Blix, to say on 7 March that ‘a substantial measure of disarmament’ was happening: ‘We are not watching the breaking of toothpicks. Lethal weapons are being destroyed.’

Most Censored Document

In 2003, I wrote that there was a crucial report in this story ‘which could have – and should have – prevented the war from taking place’, but which was being written out of history. I suggested that it might be ‘the Most Censored Document of 2003’.

That document was the UNMOVIC ‘Draft Work Programme’.

“Iraq is a horror story but it could have been a lot worse”

Back in December 1999, when the security council was working out what to do when inspectors returned to Iraq, it had put procedures in writing in UNSCR 1284. This said that, after 60 days of work in Iraq, the UN weapons inspection agencies would draw up ‘a work programme for the discharge of their mandates, which will include... the key remaining disarmament tasks to be completed by Iraq’. These key remaining disarmament tasks were to be ‘clearly defined and precise’.

For the first time, the UN would give Iraq a specific list of ‘clearly defined and precise’ tasks which, if they were carried out, would lead to the lifting of economic sanctions.

The inspectors’ work programme should have led to a new and decisive phase in the inspection process, allowing the UN by solely peaceful means to extract definitive answers to the lingering questions around Iraq’s suspected WMD – or give the UN a solid basis for deciding that Iraq had failed to comply with UNSCR 1441 (which some would say justified military action).

There was no new and decisive phase of inspections.

That’s because the inspectors only handed in their Draft Work Programme to the security council on 17 March – and Bush effectively declared war on Iraq a few hours later, drowning out the UNMOVIC programme. Bush gave Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave the country, otherwise there would be war. He also ordered the weapons inspectors and other UN staff out of Iraq.

If the US war had not started on 19 March, but been delayed some days, it might have given time for world opinion to realise that there was a real alternative to war in terms of resolving the question of Iraq’s WMD. There might have been irresistible pressure to give the inspectors more time.

How much time? Dr Blix had said, a few days earlier, on 7 March, that verifying Iraq’s disarmament ‘would not take years, nor weeks, but months.’

Delaying by months would have taken things into the heat of the Iraqi summer, which the US military was not prepared to fight in. The autumn of 2003 was too close to the 2004 presidential election cycle. Worst of all, if UN inspectors were given these months, they might give Iraq a clean bill of health – as did happen, after the invasion.

Delaying the war by a few days might have derailed the war completely.

Wobbly Tuesday

Which brings us back to Britain and ‘Wobbly Tuesday’.

After the massive anti-war demonstration in London on 15 February, the British government was forced to announce that there would be a parliamentary vote on 18 March on whether to go to war. It wasn’t sure it could persuade a majority of Labour MPs to vote for war, the crucial test.

Things came to a head on Tuesday 11 March, when British defence secretary Geoff Hoon told US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a private phone call that the British government was having problems both with Labour MPs and with the public, and that Britain might not be able to take part in the invasion force. Rumsfeld referred to this possibility in a press conference later that day, sparking transatlantic friction.

The Sunday Telegraph (16 March 2003) revealed that, on that same day, 11 March, ‘Mr Hoon’s department [the ministry of defence] was frantically preparing contingency plans to “disconnect” British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.’

The Telegraph commented: ‘“Wobbly Tuesday” was the lowest point of the crisis for Tony Blair.’

The Turkish approach

At this point, the British anti-war movement had an opportunity to ‘disconnect’ Britain from the invasion. Because British forces were so intertwined with US forces (with units under each other’s command), British withdrawal from the invasion might have led to some delay in ground operations and possibly delayed the start of the war by a few days.

British forces had become more important in the invasion plans after the Turkish parliament had failed to approve the use of their country as a launchpad for the invasion. Turkish MPs were rung on their mobile phones by angry constituents, in the chamber, as the government’s proposal was being debated on 1 March.

Suddenly, there was no northern land invasion of Iraq, and no airstrikes from the north. The southern forces, where British troops were, became more significant.

“The White House’s biggest fear is that UN weapons inspectors will be allowed to go in”

In the run-up to the British parliamentary vote on 18 March, the British anti-war movement did not mount the same kind of national lobbying effort as had taken place in Turkey.

Neither the Stop the War Coalition, dominated by the Socialist Workers Party, nor the direct action wing of the anti-war movement, largely anarchist, believed in lobbying, and no other anti-war body took the lead.

Stop the War concentrated on conventional marches and rallies. Much of the direct action movement was focused on protests at military bases; some of the rest focused on ‘Day X’, what to do when the war started. All of these were valuable activities. What was missing was a push to have a parliamentary vote on the war, and then to lobby MPs intensively.

As it was, a majority of Labour MPs voted for war.


At that time, there was one key message that might have made a difference with Labour MPs: inspections are still a valid alternative to war. Give the inspectors the time that they’re supposed to have; let them define the key remaining disarmament tasks in the Draft Work Programme and let Iraq show by its behaviour whether it is willing to pro-actively co-operate and clear up these issues or not; follow the inspection procedures laid down in UNSCR 1284, a resolution which Britain had helped to write.

One pro-war message floating around at the time was the claim that France had declared it would never vote in favour of military action at the UN security council. This lie made the lack of UN authorisation for war less troubling to MPs.

On 10 March, French president Jacques Chirac told an interviewer that, if, after a few months of investigation, the inspectors were to say that Iraq was not co-operating, ‘regrettably, the war would become inevitable’.

This part of the interview was never quoted by government officials.

Instead, they would quote the following sentence, leaving out the words in italics: ‘My position is that, regardless of the circumstances, France will vote “no” because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war....’ Chirac was only making a statement about voting against war that evening.

“Wobbly Tuesday was the lowest point of the crisis for Tony Blair”

My impression is that the anti-war movement did not realise how important this misquotation was among Labour MPs in the run-up to the vote on 18 March, or move quickly enough to counter this lie.

Three things that we can do better are: focus our energies where they are needed, even if that means something unexciting like lobbying MPs; emphasise the messages that are most important, even if that means something unexciting like supporting UN processes; identify the lies that matter and counter them rapidly and loudly.

The UNMOVIC Draft Work Programme was not mentioned in BBC Television’s instant history of The Road To War nor in the Guardian instant history, The War We Could Not Stop. It has not been given attention in the flood of books that have followed.

It seems safe to predict that this crucial document will not be mentioned in the mainstream coverage of the invasion’s 20th anniversary.

Nevertheless, on the very eve of war, there was a moment that could have changed the course of world events, and a document that should have halted George W Bush in his tracks.