The United States and Britain had no justification for invading Iraq either on the grounds of alleged threats from illicit weapons and terrorism, or as a humanitarian mission, an international civil rights group said yesterday.
The failure to find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction has left President George Bush and Tony Blair claiming that the invasion was on humanitarian grounds, said a hard-hitting annual report of Human Rights Watch. It said that the West had done nothing when Saddam massacred Kurds and Shias in the past, and there was no evidence of any continuing mass killings at the start of the war in March 2003.
The report claimed that the US and British occupation forces had "sidelined human rights... as a matter of secondary importance. The rule of law has not arrived and Iraq is still beset by the legacy of human rights abuses of the former government, as well as new ones that have emerged under the occupation." The reasons given for war by Mr Bush and Mr Blair - WMD and Saddam's alleged links with international terrorism - hadnot been proved, said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the organisation.
He pointed to recent statements by David Kay, the departing head of the Iraq Survey Group, that WMD were unlikey to be discovered, and said it was unlikely that the Hutton report into the death of David Kelly would say anything different. The document praised the American and British forces for striving to minimise civilian casualties during the air campaign, and also for being much more careful in the use of cluster bombs than in previous conflicts. It condemned the Iraqi resistance for indiscriminately bombing public areas.
The report maintained that it was "irrelevant" that the US had "unclean hands" in its support for Saddam in the past, or that there were other countries which suffered worse internal repression. Neither were good enough arguments against military intervention on proper humanitarian grounds.
However, Human Rights Watch said the US-British attack on Iraq failed to qualify on a number of grounds normally used as a test of justified humanitarian military action.
There were no mass killings going on; war was not the only option - legal, economic and political measures could have been taken; there was no evidence that humanitarian purpose was the main one for launching the invasion; the attack did not have the backing of the United Nations or any other multinational body, and the situation in the country has not got better.
Mr Roth said: "The Bush administration cannot justify the war in Iraq as a humanitarian intervention, and neither can Tony Blair ... such interventions should be reserved for stopping an imminent or ongoing slaughter. They shouldn't be used to address atrocities that were ignored in the past.
"Humanitarianism, even understood broadly as a concern for the welfare of people, was at best a subsidiary motive for the invasion of Iraq."
He said: "Over time, the principal justifications originally given for the Iraq war lost much of their force. More than seven months after the declared end of major hostilities, weapons of mass destruction have not been found. No significant pre-war link between Saddam Hussein and international terrorism has been discovered. The difficulty of establishing stable institutions in Iraq is making the country an increasingly unlikely staging ground for promoting democracy in the Middle East."
Human Rights Watch criticises the US and Britain for not sending in more troops after the invasion. This, says the report, might have prevented the anarchy after the fall of Saddam's regime. Mr Roth said the Pentagon had acted as if it believed that the Iraqis would welcome the soldiers with open arms.
Human Rights Watch is a mainstream body with support across the political spectrum. It does not have a policy of opposing military action.