Letters lift lid on Benn's concern at rebuilding post-war Iraq

CONCERN over the pace of rebuilding war-torn Iraq was raised by then international development secretary Hilary Benn just 18 months after the conflict had begun, documents released alongside the Chilcot report reveal.

Leeds Central MP Mr Benn told Tony Blair that he could forsee difficulty in implementing plans and needed greater international backing to help Iraq recover from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and subsequent invasion.

The declassified material show shis worry that the intended timetable for vital democratic elections in Iraq was slipping and security threats were hindering the work of the Department for International Development.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

After a visit to Iraq in September 2003, six months after the invasion, he wrote to Tony Blair saying that reconstructing Iraq was achievable but the assassination attempt on a female member of the interim Government, who later died of her injuries, had revthe fragility of the situation.

He wrote: “This country should have a lot going for it. The Iraqis need to be helped to take charge. We need to support them in doing so effectively, and to persuade the Americans (who hold very fixed views) that this is both desirable and feasible.”

Differences of opinion were also started to emerge between Britain and America on the nature of the new Iraqi economy.

Mr Benn referred often to his encounters with American diplomat Paul Bremer, who led the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

He wrote: “Bremer talks about handing over power to [the Iraqis] and the Governing Council, but seems reluctant to let go.

“He clearly has great energy but also holds very fixed views. e.g with forging ahead with privatisation. This is not a good idea in the short-term in a country with a legacy of a command economy, high unemployment and inflation.”

In a letter to Tony Blair written on September 3 2004, he wrote that the UN needed to get back into southern Iraq, as reconstruction in that region was progressing slowly.

He asked Mr Blair to “stiffen” the resolve of then interim Prime Minster of Iraq Ayad Allawi as he could see he was ‘wobbling badly on the election timetable’ and commented that the process looked set to be a “long hard slog”.

He wrote: “Security affects everything - progress on the political process, economic recovery and reconstruction.”

While he praised how well the initial transfer of power to the Iraqi Interim Government and noted improvements to the country’s electricity supply, it was clear that by late 2004 plans were hitting severe delays due to worsening violence and insecurity.

However he wrote: “But the pace of reconstruction is still too slow. Security is a constraint - our staff cannot implement new programmes when locked down - and this affects the bigger spenders too. Both the US PCO and the UN assured me that they were making progress, but frankly, until the Iraqis see that progress on the ground, we should remain very sceptical.”

In January 2007 however it was clear that the redevelopment of Iraq was becoming increasingly difficult and he wrote to Mr Blair to say the humanitarian picture in the country was of “increasing vulnerability”.

He said it was clear that the number of bombings and attacks had led to widespread movement of people.

From practical discussions on electricity and water infrastructure projects and the country’s potential in 2003, his letter to Mr Blair four years later shows a distinct shift in circumstances in Iraq.

He wrote: “Shelter is a particular problem but health and water/sanitation needs are also increasing.”