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Britain's Iraq Inquiry Opens With a Vow to Be 'Rigorous"

Published: July 30, 2009

LONDON — After years of delay, a wide-ranging public inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war opened on Thursday with a pledge from its chairman that it would be unsparing in examining the causes and conduct of Britain’s involvement, and in assigning blame where necessary.

“We are determined to be thorough, rigorous, fair and frank,” Sir John Chilcot, a 70-year-old retired civil servant, said in an opening statement that appeared aimed, at least in part, at critics who contended that the investigation could become another whitewash of actions by those who led Britain to war, including the prime minister at the time, Tony Blair.

“The inquiry is not a court of law, and nobody is on trial,” the inquiry chairman said. “But I want to make something absolutely clear: This committee will not shy away from making criticism.”

Sir John said the panel planned to hold hearings and summon documents dealing with every phase of the war, from the decisions that preceded military action in Iraq to their aftermath. The purpose will be “to establish as accurately as possible what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned,” he said.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed the five-member inquiry panel last month with a formal statement that it would not be assigning blame for events in Iraq. In the face of a public outcry, Mr. Brown quickly backed down, but the panel, judging by the chairman’s statement, appeared set on establishing its independence.

Signaling that the panel would not rely solely on senior officials like Mr. Blair who had long rehearsed their justifications for the war, the chairman said it might also call “junior officials with vital evidence about the ways their managers and leaders acted,” and would encourage testimony from families of some of the 179 British soldiers who died in Iraq.

Sir John’s insistence that the panel hold as many of its hearings in public as possible, and allow live television coverage — another break with Mr. Brown’s original stipulation of closed hearings — presented the possibility that some of the more contentious sessions would take place in the prelude to a general election that must be held by June.

The panel’s chairman said the panel’s task was “huge,” setting the earliest date for its report for the end of 2010, or possibly 2011. That led Michael White, an editor at the newspaper The Guardian, to write that “the daily drip-drip attrition of public evidence will open another flank” against Mr. Brown’s Labour Party during the spring campaign.

Sir John suggested that the panel would also to look into the ways in which the relationship between Mr. Blair and President George W. Bush had contributed to Britain’s decision to join the Iraq invasion.

“The Anglo-American relationship is one of the most central parts of this inquiry, and how that was conducted is something we need to get a very strong understanding of,” he said.

War critics have complained about Mr. Brown’s choice of a former civil servant as the inquiry’s leader, instead of a well-known public figure with established independence from the government. Sir John held a succession of top security-related posts before retiring in 1997, including the top civil service job in the Northern Ireland Office.

The inquiry follows two earlier, narrowly based investigations of the war, the last completed only 16 months after American and British forces invaded Iraq in March 2003. Those inquiries were widely judged in Britain to have given the Blair government too easy a passage on the war, which many critics here regard as Britain’s worst foreign policy blunder since the Suez invasion in 1956.

The first inquiry, in 2003, looked into the death of David Kelly, a British weapons expert who committed suicide after the Blair government identified him as the source for a BBC report that accused the government of inflating intelligence reports on Saddam Hussein’s supposed stockpile of chemical and biological weapons in the prelude to the war. The inquiry, by Lord Hutton, a senior judge, found Mr. Blair and his officials blameless.

A second inquiry, by Lord Butler, a former cabinet secretary, investigated the Blair government’s uses of intelligence in justifying British involvement in the war. The inquiry found that that “more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear,” and that the government’s judgments had stretched available intelligence “to the outer limits.”