Britain Initiates Iraq War Inquiry; Ex-Prime Minister Blair Is Set to Testify

By Karla Adam
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, July 31, 2009

LONDON, July 30 -- Britain launched an independent inquiry into its role in the Iraq war, with the panel's chairman confirming that former prime minister Tony Blair will be among the witnesses and that it would not "shy away from making criticism."

John Chilcot said at a news conference Thursday that the panel would scrutinize the period from 2001 until the present, making its investigation Britain's widest-ranging inquiry yet into the Iraq war.

He also said that "the Anglo-American relationship is one of the most central parts of this inquiry" and that the panel hoped to have "discussions" with Americans involved in the war. At the same time, he said, "discussions and evidence sessions are not necessarily the same thing, and of course we have no power to compel witnesses here, let alone in foreign governments."

Blair's decision to join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was deeply unpopular here and was seen as one of the key reasons he stepped down two years ago.

Chilcot, a former civil servant, emphasized that "the inquiry is not a court" and that nobody is on trial, but he said, "I want to make something absolutely clear: The committee will not shy away from making criticism."

"If we find that mistakes were made, that there were issues which could have been dealt with better, we will say so frankly," he said.

When Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the inquiry last month, he initially said it would be held behind closed doors. The decision was reversed after objections from opposition politicians and families of British soldiers who died in Iraq. The war has claimed the lives of 179 British troops, and Brown has described the inquiry as a chance to pinpoint "lessons learned."

Chilcot said that "wherever possible," the inquiry will be conducted in public -- perhaps broadcast on television or streamed live on the Internet, he said -- although some sessions will be held in private as a matter of national security and to "ensure complete candor and openness" from witnesses.

Britain has held two other major inquiries concerning its involvement in the Iraq war, including one into the suicide of David Kelly, a weapons specialist who was critical of the Blair government's intelligence on Iraqi weapons. The inquiries, held in 2004, largely cleared the government but were accused by some of leaving key questions unanswered and of being insufficiently independent.

In addition to Chilcot, the committee members are Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies at King's College in London; Martin Gilbert, a military historian and biographer of Winston Churchill; Roderick Lyne, a former British ambassador to Russia; and Usha Prashar, chairman of a commission that selects candidates for judicial office in England and Wales.

Findings will not be published until late 2010 at the earliest, Chilcot said, adding that it was "quite simply a huge job." Critics have noted that this means the final report, which could be damaging to Brown's Labor Party, will be issued after Britain's next national elections, which must be held by June.

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the inquiry must have "teeth."

"The Government must not be able to interfere to keep Blair and Brown out of the spotlight for the sake of political convenience in the run-up to an election," Clegg said in a statement on his Web site. "Tony Blair ordered this disastrous war and Gordon Brown signed the cheques -- without public appearances from them, this inquiry will be seen as a whitewash."

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