Paul Keating has said John Howard should “atone for the actions of his government” over the handling of the Iraq war and “hang his head in shame” after the release of the Chilcot report on the UK’s role in the war. Keating said Howard had “visited on Australia the whole spectre of terrorism through his craven and ill-judged support of the US and its invasion”.
On Thursday Howard said he believed his decision was “justified at the time” and refused to resile from it.
“In the years that have gone by there’s been this constant claim that we went to war based on a lie,” Howard said. “There was no lie. There were errors in intelligence, but there was no lie.”
Keating said: “Howard’s stubborn and unctuous denial of his responsibility in committing Australian troops to the assault in Iraq, should be held in contempt by every thinking Australian.”
Keating accused Howard of supporting George Bush’s decision to go to war “notwithstanding that there was never any linkage” between the 11 September attacks and Saddam Hussein.
He said the “singular cause” of the war was the purported presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but “there was never any evidence that such weapons existed and that fact was established following the exhaustive UN investigation led by Hans Blix”.
The Chilcot report was excoriating in its assessment of the British government’s decision-making process over going to war, saying the threat posed by dictator Saddam Hussein was overplayed, intelligence was flawed and the legal basis for the war was unsatisfactory.
Keating said when he and Hawke committed forces to the first Iraq war in 1991, the objective was “to check the Hussein regime” after Iraq invaded Kuwait, but not to achieve regime change.
“Could you imagine the woebetidings of Howard and the Liberal party, had it been Hawke or I who had committed Australia to such an unmandated assault on another country?”
Keating said the management of Iraq after the war had been “incompetent”, leaving the country “fractured” and casting millions of refugees “adrift from their lives and homes”.
“Yet Howard has no shame of it. And no responsibility.”
Keating ridiculed the Howard government’s “Be alert but not alarmed” fridge magnets designed to help warn Australian citizens about the risk of terrorism.
“We need more than magnets now,” he said.
Keating said Howard had “put the torch” to Australia being “perhaps the most successful multicultural society in the world”, including the settlement of a large Muslim population.
“Now we live perpetually with the spectre of terrorism and racial strife, visited upon us by his prejudices and lack of judgement.”
“In the face of this Chilcot report, John Howard should atone for his actions and those of his government. He should, at least, hang his head in shame.”
Speaking on ABC’s AM on Friday, Howard said he did not accept the report’s judgment that the war took place before alternative options had been exhausted, because France and Russia would have vetoed any further UN resolution authorising force.
Howard said: “Do I retreat in any way from the decision I took in 2003? No, I do not.
“An apology would be necessary if there had been no fundamental justification for what we did, and there was justification.
“It was grounded in the belief of our intelligence agencies … that Iraq did contain stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction … that was subsequently found to be flawed.”
Andrew Wilkie, who resigned in 2003 from his role as an intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments in protest against the Australian government’s decision to join the invasion of Iraq, said on Thursday the Chilcot report vindicated his position.
“John Howard and Tony Blair and George W Bush do stand accused of war crimes. I’d like them to see an international court. I would like them to defend their position and try to prove their innocence because all of those people who do accuse them of war crimes, I think make a pretty compelling case.
Wilkie said the terrorism threat faced by Australia was “a direct result” of the Howard government’s decision to go to war in 2003.
“Frankly, there are a number of political leaders who in my opinion have blood on their hands,” he said. “The Bali bombing of 2005 would not have occurred if we hadn’t have joined in the invasion of Iraq.
“The Lindt Cafe siege would not have occurred if we hadn’t helped create the circumstances for the rise of Islamic State.”
Howard said Wilkie’s comments were “absurd”.
“Andrew Wilkie said the Iraq invasion was responsible for the Bali attack of 2005. What about the Bali attack of 2002, infinitely greater? And he blamed it for the Lindt cafe siege. I mean, this is irrational.”