A British investigatory committee examining pre-war failures plans to call the country’s former head of state, former Prime Minister Tony Blair — a move the US Congress probably will never embrace.
The British inquiry involves five panelists who will quiz witnesses as to their knowledge of the events leading up to the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war, which was started by President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. 150 Britons died in the conflict; the last UK troops were withdrawn earlier this year.
Ex civil servant Sir John Chilcot — a former civil servant who is leading the probe — insisted the inquiry would not be a whitewash, adding it would visit Iraq and hold discussions with its officials plus those from the United States and other countries involved in the conflict.
“The inquiry is not a court of law and nobody is on trial. But I want to make something absolutely clear — the committee will not shy away from making criticism,” he told reporters.
In the US, no such effort to solicit President George W. Bush’s testimony has occurred, though the Senate Intelligence Committee mounted its own investigation into faulty pre-war intelligence. The US Congress voted in support of authorizing President Bush to use “force” in Iraq, effectively signing a declaration of war.
“If we find that mistakes were made, that there were issues which could have been dealt with better, we will say so frankly,” Chilcot said.
Chilcot is described as the ultimate “mandarin” and “safe pair of hands.”
The inquiry was announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown last month, honouring a pledge that the run-up to and conduct of the US-led and British-backed conflict would be examined once British troops pulled out.
Brown’s predecessor Blair faced intense public hostility after backing then US president George W. Bush in the 2003 invasion and Blair’s resulting unpopularity was one of the main reasons which led to him quitting in 2007.
Blair will be called to give evidence at the hearings which will start later this year, Chilcot said. The former premier has vowed to cooperate “fully” with the probe.
There has been controversy over whether the hearings will be heard in public but Chilcot stressed this would happen wherever possible, adding they could be televised and streamed live on the Internet.
But some evidence will be taken in private for national security reasons and to ensure “complete candour”, he said, adding that although witnesses could not be compelled to give evidence, he did not expect anyone to decline.
Brown was forced into an embarrassing U-turn after initially announcing that the inquiry would be held in private, provoking angry claims that it would not be transparent.
The prime minister also had to backtrack on an initial pledge that the probe would not “apportion blame,” with Foreign Secretary David Miliband telling MPs it could “praise or blame whoever it likes.”
The probe will seek access to government records and will also hear from the families of the 179 British troops who died in Iraq from 2003.
There have already been two main official probes in Britain into elements surrounding the run-up to the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The 2004 Hutton inquiry looked at the suicide of David Kelly, a government scientist named as the possible source of a BBC report claiming the government “sexed up” a dossier on Iraq’s military capability.
Meanwhile the Butler inquiry, which reported the same year, highlighted failings in intelligence over whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Chilcot was a member of the panel which oversaw that inquiry.
Critics have labelled previous probes a whitewash, but Chilcot insisted that the latest should be judged on its findings, highlighting the credentials of he and his fellow panel members.
“I don’t think any of us, candidly, are prisoners of a Whitehall culture… subservient to the government of the day,” he told reporters.
The report is expected by late 2010 at the earliest.
It will not be published before the next general election, which has to be held by the middle of next year, and which polls say Brown’s government faces an uphill battle to win.
The Iraq inquiry will not produce its final report until after the general election, its chairman, Sir John Chilcot, said today.
Chilcot told a news conference the inquiry team would find it impossible to finish its work within a year and that it might not be able to publish its conclusions until 2011.
He also confirmed that the former prime minister Tony Blair would definitely be expected to give evidence to the inquiry in public.
And he said his committee would “not shy away” from attributing blame if it was justified.
Gordon Brown has to call an election by 3 June next year, and Chilcot’s comments mean the government will not have to worry about the inquiry’s final verdict being an issue during the campaign.
Chilcot said he had not ruled out publishing an interim report, but added that this was unlikely.
In his opening address, the former civil servant stressed that Blair would be called to give evidence.
“The inquiry is not a court of law, and nobody is on trial,” he said.
“But 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.”
Chilcot repeated his insistence that evidence would be heard in public and perhaps live on television “wherever possible”.
But he said some sessions would remain behind closed doors, “consistent with the need to protect national security, sometimes to ensure complete candour and openness from witnesses”.
He said the panel had already requested government documents to begin the task of identifying “the critical issues on which to focus” with the help of legal, military and reconstruction experts.
The families of those who have died during the conflict and others “seriously affected”, including veterans’ groups, will be among the first to make their feelings known to the inquiry.
Arrangements are already in hand to meet them “as soon as practicable”, Chilcot said.
“We are determined to be thorough, rigorous, fair and frank to enable us to form impartial and evidence-based judgments on all aspects of the issues, including the argument about the legality of the conflict,” he said.
In his news conference, the inquiry chairman also revealed that, although witnesses would not give evidence on oath, they would be ask to give an undertaking that what they were saying was “truthful, fair and accurate”.
He declined to say whether any of the five-strong inquiry team had opposed the war. The inquiry team will be visiting Iraq.
Chilcot said the team would have “discussions” with senior Americans and other international figures involved in the war, although he suggested that foreign politicians and officials would not be giving evidence formally in public.
He said the “key decision-makers in the different phases of the Iraq affair” would give evidence, but did not name any individual who would be called except for Blair. He declined to say whether Brown would appear.
The chairman ruled out conducting the inquiry through lawyers. Instead, the five members of the inquiry will question witnesses themselves.
Chilcot was joined at the news conference by the four other members of his team: Sir Lawrence Freedman, the professor of war studies at King’s College, London, and the official historian of the Falklands war; Sir Martin Gilbert, the historian and Churchill biographer; Sir Roderic Lyne, a former ambassador to Russia, and Baroness Prashar, the chairman of the judicial appointments commission. All five members of the inquiry are privy counsellors.
The inquiry,has been described by Brown as a means to “learn the lessons of the complex and often controversial events” from the September 11 terror attacks on the US to the withdrawal of most British troops from Iraq earlier this year.
Key questions are likely to include whether Blair had already made it clear privately to George Bush that he would commit UK troops to an invasion of Iraq before the diplomatic wrangling at the UN.
They will also include how much information the then prime minister and his close advisers shared with the rest of the government and MPs.
For years, the government has resisted calls for a public inquiry into the conflict on the grounds that it could endanger British forces still serving in Iraq.
But with combat operations over and only 150 British troops remaining in the country, where they are training local forces, Brown announced last month that it was time for the “unprecedented” inquiry.
The prime minister has promised full government cooperation, although he has already been forced into significant U-turns over the way in which it will be conducted.
There was an outcry from the families of military personnel who died and from opposition parties when, announcing the formation of the inquiry, Brown said it would be held in private.
Chilcot later said most hearings would be in public unless there were “compelling reasons”, such as national security, for witnesses to be heard in private.
Brown’s initial contention that there would be no apportioning of blame was also later contradicted, this time by the foreign secretary, David Miliband, although Miliband emphasised that criminal or civil liability would not be established.
The Tories have complained that it is politically expedient for the government to delay the conclusions until after a general election.
Brown said the final report would “be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information, that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security”.
It follows two inquiries – chaired by Lords Hutton and Butler respectively – that drew criticism for their lack of independence.
British forces officially ended combat operations in Iraq in April after a campaign in which 179 servicemen and women died.
The war, which was supported by Brown, and which he financed as chancellor, cost the British taxpayer approximately £6.5bn.
copyright: article: John Byrne