Did Dutch PM Jan Peter Balkenende misinform parliament about the Iraq war? That is the unspoken question hovering over the Davids Committee inquiry whose report was published on Tuesday. The independent committee was asked by the PM to investigate the political process which resulted in the Netherlands' joining George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing".
Dutch politics at the time was self-centred and showed little awareness of the outside world, committee chairman Willibrord Davids said when he presented his report. Hardly any thought was given to what should happen once the invasion had taken place and Saddam Hussein's regime had been toppled.
Summary of the report
The committee explicitly refrained from giving a political judgement about the lead-up to the war decision. "We established the facts," chairman Davids said.
Prime Minister Balkenende formally thanked the committee for its report, but declined to comment, saying that the report was new for him too.
The Netherlands lent explicit "political support" to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, while rejecting any form of military involvement. Mr Balkenende, who was caretaker prime minister at the time, argued that Saddam Hussein had consistently flouted UN resolutions and possessed weapons of mass destruction. The prime minister later said he had based his decision to join the war on a letter by his British counterpart Tony Blair, "for his eyes only". Mr Blair's letter apparently convinced Mr Balkenende that Saddam Hussein was able to hit Europe with weapons of mass destruction at short notice.
The Davids committee was not allowed to publish the contents of the letter in its report.
No UN mandate
The committee confirmed that there was no UN mandate for the attack, putting the decision to join at odds with international law. But it is hard to say whether other - for example military - considerations outweighed the lack of international support, Mr Davids said. Clearly, Dutch loyalty to the Atlantic alliance was paramount, according to the investigator.
Parliament objected to the invasion plans, pointing out that an attack on Iraq was not covered by a UN mandate, but the government went ahead and joined the coalition. Rumours about military involvement by Dutch special forces in the war persisted, however. They were fuelled initially by the appearance of colonel Jan Blom at a press conference by US General Tommy Franks, three days into the war. Colonel Blom was a Dutch liaison officer with US Central Command.
The Davids committee did not find any evidence, however, of Dutch military being actively involved in fighting in Iraq. In a couple of instances, the frigate HNLMS Van Nes escorted British and US naval vessels during the build-up to the invasion.
Led by allies
The committee wrote that Dutch support for an Iraq invasion was agreed as early as August 2002 in a 45 minute meeting between Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and a number of his officials. Prime Minister Balkenende, heading an unstable rightwing coalition with the Pim Fortuyn List party at the time, did not become involved until January 2003.
Mr De Hoop Scheffer was later appointed head of NATO, but the decision to go to war in Iraq was not made in order to increase his chances for the post, the committee found.
For a long time it remained unclear to what extent the Dutch government based its decision to go to war solely on information provided by its allies. Leaked documents suggested that Dutch intelligence services supplied the cabinet with more information which partially contradicted or cast a different light on data supplied by the US and the UK. The lower house was not informed by the cabinet about this more nuanced information. The AIVD and MIVD intelligence services had little or no information about Saddam's armoury, the Davids report says.
Classified government documents published by the Dutch press last month revealed that officials of the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs had warned the government of the day that the legal justification for the invasion was very slim indeed. This view was shared by many international law experts.
Cabinet at risk
Tuesday's presentation of the findings of the Davids Committee, tasked with investigating how the Dutch government of the day arrived at its decision to support the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, could determine the future of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. And the future of his government, too. His major coalition partner, Labour, was opposed to the Iraq war, but suspended its objections on condition that Dutch involvement would be limited to non-military assistance.
So far, there have been 15 debates on the issue but Mr Balkenende managed to block every attempt to hold an official enquiry. Until early in 2009, that is, when he had to give in and asked retired president Willibrord Davids of the Supreme Court to head an independent committee.
It is now up to parliament to decide whether the PM misled parliament, and whether the 550-page report will be followed up by a formal parliamentary inquiry.
Under fire: Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende (ANP Photo)