A wide-ranging inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq War began yesterday, aiming to throw light on former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s case for invasion but risking embarrassment for the current government.
A five-member inquiry team, headed by former civil servant John Chilcot is probing the reasons for British participation in the 2003 US-led invasion and the subsequent occupation of Iraq, promising a “thorough” and “rigorous” probe of events.
Critics, including relatives of some of the 179 British service personnel killed during the six years of British combat operations which officially ended at the end of April this year, have long called for an inquiry into the war.
They argue Blair and his team misled the public and distorted intelligence to justify the invasion. Blair, who is due to give evidence himself early next year, sent over 45 000 British troops to topple Saddam Hussein.
On the first day of public hearings, senior officials told the inquiry that Britain had no plans to oust Saddam in 2001 but there had been “drum beats” for regime change from the new administration of President George W. Bush in Washington.
They said the policy of containing Saddam through sanctions and an arms embargo was failing, and some, such as former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had mooted the possibility of ousting the Iraqi regime before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“We were aware of those drum beats from Washington,” said William Patey, a senior official at the Foreign Office.
“Our policy was to stay away from that end of the spectrum. We didn’t have an explicit policy for trying to get rid of (Saddam).”
The inquiry heard Britain believed Saddam’s desire to obtain weapons of mass destruction meant he posed a threat, although he was not the country’s greatest concern, and prior to the September 11 attacks officials had been working to try to beef up controls through sanctions.
After 9/11, there was a shift in tone in Washington with far less tolerance for Saddam, although Britain was still committed to a policy of trying to get UN weapons inspectors into Iraq.
“I am not aware right up to March 2002 of any increased appetite by UK ministers for military action in Iraq,” Patey said, adding there would have been no legal basis.
Commentators say evidence to the inquiry and publicly raking over such a divisive issue could embarrass the government before a general election which must be held by June 2010, with Gordon Brown already trailing in polls to the Conservatives.
However the inquiry’s final verdict will not be made public until the end of 2010 at the earliest, well after the general election expected next May.
Chilcot’s study will be the third official probe into the Iraq War.
Previous reports in 2004 into intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the death of an Iraq weapons expert who killed himself after the government ousted him as the source of a BBC report that claimed Blair had “sexed up” intelligence exonerated the government of any wrongdoing.
Both findings were widely condemned in the media as being a whitewash.
“What we are committed to, and what the British general public can expect from us, is a guarantee to be thorough, impartial, objective and fair,” Chilcot said.
“I make a commitment here that once we get to our final report, we will not shy away from making criticisms where they are warranted.”
Anti-war campaigners said they did not have much confidence in the latest probe.
“Sir John Chilcot insists that it will not be a whitewash but the committee the five members of which were all hand-picked by Gordon Brown looks like it was set up with exactly that purpose,” said the Stop the War Coalition.
Chilcot’s team will begin by hearing testimony from senior officials and military officers. Blair and other politicians will be quizzed early next year, although Chilcot has not yet said whether Brown will be called to give evidence.
Pic: Former British Prime Minister- Tony Blair