Page last updated at 16:32 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Short resignation 'did not hinder' post-war aid work

Benn: "There was a task to be done and people got on with it."

Clare Short's resignation from the cabinet over Iraq did not affect the "professionalism" of her staff working there, one of her successors has said.

Development staff simply "got on" with their job of rebuilding the country after her exit in May 2003, Hilary Benn told the Iraq inquiry.

But there were tensions between aid officials and the military over the early speed of reconstruction, he said.

Army officers had wanted "quick" and "visible" progress, he added.

Although everyone was "impatient" for this, he said civilian and military officials developed a "greater understanding" over time that some projects could only be delivered in the long-term.

'Malign neglect'

Ms Short told the inquiry earlier that she believed the cabinet had been "misled" over the legality of going to war and criticised government planning for the aftermath of the conflict.

Mr Benn, currently environment secretary, joined the Department for International Development (DfiD) as minister of state after Ms Short's resignation over Iraq and was promoted to secretary of state six months later.

If you or I were going to work on a daily basis and we were being rocketed, I don't know how we would feel about it
Hilary Benn

Mr Benn said her departure had not affected aid work in Iraq or the relationship between DfiD and other departments.

He said early reconstruction efforts in Iraq had been hampered more by the legacy of 30 years of "malign neglect" by Saddam Hussein and escalating violence which forced UN officials to leave the country.

"With the fall of Saddam Hussein, there were very high hopes that things would change and change quickly," he said. "But affecting practical change on the ground was quite difficult."

Some senior military officers have criticised DfiD's performance in the months after the invasion, suggesting officials were reluctant to assist the reconstruction effort because of their opposition to the war.

'Long, hard slog'

But Mr Benn praised his staff, particularly the Iraqis, who were "incredibly brave" and for whom "intimidation was a real problem".

He added: "The morale was extremely high. If you or I were going to work on a daily basis and we were being rocketed, I don't know how we would feel about it."

However, Mr Benn was critical of the decision to remove all Saddam's Baath party supporters from official positions, saying: "If we strip out a whole level, we lose capacity."

He added: "The were ideological Baathists and people who joined the Baath party because that was the way to get on."

Speaking of his time as international development secretary, Mr Benn said: "I said early on, in one of my letters to the PM, it's going to be a long, hard slog."

The Iraq inquiry is looking at the UK's role in the build-up, conduct and aftermath of the Iraq war. It is expected to report next year.

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