By Karla Adam
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
LONDON -- Six years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a panel probing Britain's role in the war began public hearings Tuesday, with the chairman declaring that he would "get to the heart" of what had happened.
The five-member panel is scrutinizing the period from 2001 until the present, marking Britain's widest inquiry yet into the war.
Dozens of witnesses are scheduled to testify, including military chiefs, former leaders of Britain's spy agencies and Tony Blair, whose decision to back the March 2003 invasion while he was the British prime minister was deeply unpopular here.
In Tuesday's hearing, British officials told the inquiry that some in the U.S. administration had been discussing the possibility of "regime change" as early as 2001.
William Patey, then head of the Foreign Office's Middle East department, testified that in 2001 "we were aware of the drumbeats from Washington" about regime change but that "our policy was to stay away from that end of the spectrum."
Over the weekend, the Sunday Telegraph published leaked government reports suggesting that plans for war were in place months before the British public was informed and that as a result of the "rushed" operation, British troops were left ill-equipped and unprepared.
The inquiry was officially launched in July to investigate the buildup to the war, the invasion and the aftermath. John Chilcot, the chairman, has said that the panel will also investigate the role the U.S.-British relationship played in the war and that he hopes to have "discussions" with Americans.
In his opening statement Tuesday, Chilcot, a former civil servant, said the investigation's aim is to identify "lessons that should be learned" to "help future governments who may face similar situations."
Chilcot and his colleagues were appointed by Downing Street, prompting concerns about the panel's independence. On Tuesday, Chilcot emphasized that his team was "apolitical and independent of any political party."
A small group of protesters gathered outside the inquiry's venue in central London on Tuesday wearing masks of Blair, former president George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown while clutching dollar bills soaked in fake blood.
Some critics expressed doubt that the inquiry would uncover the truth behind the decision-making that led up to the war.
Carne Ross, a former British diplomat and Iraq expert at the U.N. Security Council, said he thought that the witnesses who would be called would be too senior, "the sort of people who have a vested interest in confirming the government's narrative." He added, "Why would they want to reveal their own culpability?"
Despite two other official probes into aspects of the Iraq war, both in 2004, "there is a real hunger for accountability in the U.K.," Ross said.
Since the inquiry began, the committee has combed through "mountains of written material" from the British government, Chilcot said, and met with experts, veterans and some of the families of the 179 British service members killed in Iraq.
Chilcot emphasized that the panel will not apportion blame. "No one is on trial here. We cannot determine guilt or innocence," he said. But he also said that when the panel issues its report in late 2010 or early 2011, "we will not shy away from making criticisms, either with institutions or processes or individuals."
Adam is a special correspondent.