thu 25/04/2019

The Iraq War, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Iraq War, BBC Two

The Iraq War, BBC Two

Tony Blair speaks to posterity in new Brook Lapping politico-historical mega-doc

This is how you tell it, Dick: VP Dick Cheney speaks for his president in Brook Lapping's 'The Iraq War'All images - BBC/Brian Lapping

Did they get the president? That’s the benchmark question viewers will ask of any new film from documentary house par excellence Brook Lapping and producer Norma Percy ever since they secured an interview with Slobodan Milosevic for their landmark The Death of Yugoslavia. Their strike rate has rather dropped off lately. Even though – or because? – he was the subject of the outfit’s recent Putin, Russia and the West, that wasn't enough to convince the current master of the Kremlin to participate.

Brook Lapping's new three-parter, The Iraq War, has a similar dearth of the number-one men: George W Bush chose to follow Putin's line, sending his top deputies, from the administration, military and CIA alike, in to bat for him. Saddam Hussein (pictured below right) has obviously been off the interview circuit since 2006, leaving us to wonder what he would have said if given the opportunity. From our side of the pond Tony Blair took the Brook Lapping opportunity to speak to posterity – he’d have been as surely damned for hubris if he hadn’t? – saying that the Middle East was ready for a "remake", and if the cause being lined up against Saddam was right, “I wanted my country to be part of it.” We'll have to draw our own conclusions as to why they filmed Blair with his face caught halfway between darkness and light.

But there was another character who refused to speak to the filmmakers, and if we’d never heard of him before, it was just the kind of revelation of the smaller details in the strands of a wider narrative that gave The Iraq War its fascination. Nabil Magrabi was an Arab journalist-chancer living in France, who had the ear of the French secret service enough for them to pass on his story – that Saddam’s foreign minister Naji Sabri (pictured bottom left) was ready to defect and had secrets about WMD to spill – to the CIA chief in Paris.

That bait duly swallowed, Magrabi took his $200,000 CIA fee upfront and met with Sabri in New York. Code to his CIA minders that they had spoken would be if Sabri wore one of the customized suits that Magrabi had given him when Sabri spoke at the UN the following day. He duly did, and Magrabi’s report that Iraq had chemical weapons mounted on launchers, biological weapons “nascent”, and nuclear capability due in a couple of years entered the invading regime’s mythology. Little surprise that some years later Sabri was officially debriefed and showed astonishment at the suggestion he’d been prepared to swap sides, let alone that as foreign minister, never a very privileged position in Iraq, he would have had knowledge of top regime secrets. Rather more surprise, though, that when the CIA’s Paris man read the transcript of his interrogation of Magrabi, also some years later, he found it had been drastically altered before being handed up the ranks. From such seeds, whole branches grow…

 

The action developed briskly in the series’ first part, “Regime Change”, punctuated by one deadline after another – more a sprint than the post-invasion marathon. The narratives from within the Iraqi camp fascinated the most, as we felt the deadly froideur at Saddam’s meetings with his Republican Guard generals – those long formal tables, the nervous coughing, the very opposite of the kitchen cabinet-style discussions on the other side. We met Iraqi general Raad Hamdani, who was brave enough to tell Saddam that his forces were no match for the invaders and survived to tell the tale, only for one of his final cryptic conversations, checking there were indeed no WMD, to be intercepted and misinterpreted that there still were. Through Hamdani’s recollection of Saddam’s final instructions to his guards that, after polishing off the US invaders, they should advance to Palestine and destroy Israel, we began to understand the fantasy world the dictator was living in.

The closing episodes, “After the Fall” and “It’s Hell, Mr President”, will take us into the more specific world of US-Iraqi dynamics after the invasion, with Britain (let alone any of the other nations supporting the intervention) barely getting a look-in. This story of how the occupied country made its inexorable way to being a “cauldron, consumed with killing” is specific and expertly told, setting up nicely the nuances of character relations between individuals on opposite sides that Brook Lapping are so expert at capturing. Lessons in diplomatic understatement aplenty, too – one character admits to having “what might charitably be termed very significant reservations”, when he means he was just dumbstruck at some of the stupidities being enacted. One not top-ranking American, Walt Slocombe, justifies his refusal to hand out $20 payments to the Iraqi army because he didn’t see his job as back-paying Saddam’s wages. This was arguably the single act that tipped the wider Iraqi citizenry into opposition. It's a moment that simply freezes you as you gulp in shock.

At other times it’s the bathetic that hits home, never more so than in a remark from British foreign secretary Jack Straw. One of his hurried transatlantic trips to confer with Colin Powell found Straw on Concorde, sitting next to Dustin Hoffman, who, he admits, clearly had no more idea of who Straw was than “just another European foreign minister”. Truer words rarely spoken.

This story of how the occupied country made its inexorable way to being a 'cauldron, consumed with killing' is expertly told

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters