LONDON // A long-awaited inquiry into Britain's decision to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq will be announced by the prime minister, Gordon Brown, this week. The announcement, which could come as early as tomorrow, will look at controversial areas including the legality of the government's decision to join the US-led invasion.
For years, opponents of the war have suspected that the opinion of law officers from the attorney general's office given to the government originally advised that such a war would not be legal under international law, but that that opinion was subsequently changed after pressure from Tony Blair's ministers. Mr Brown has previously sounded reluctant to order an inquiry even though Britain's combat troops have now been withdrawn, leaving about 400 in Iraq undertaking training of local forces. Now, however, it is suspected that he has brought forward the announcement of an inquiry because of the leadership challenge he has faced in recent weeks.
However, this attempt to pacify his critics within the Labour Party may fail if, as expected, most of the inquiry is to be conducted behind closed doors. Mr Brown is expected to justify private hearings by citing the precedent established by the Franks inquiry, which investigated the 1982 Falklands War. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who opposed the Iraq invasion, and who have been demanding a full inquiry in public, said yesterday that the inquiry would be seen as a sham unless those conducting it were given full access to all documents, could subpoena witnesses and look back to events unfolding at least a year before the war began.
"If he [Gordon Brown] holds it all or partly in secret and kicks the eventual report into the long grass, it will be a betrayal of all those families who lost children serving in Iraq," Mr Clegg told the Observer newspaper. Alan Simpson, an MP who chairs the Labour Against the War group, added that Mr Brown's strategy of using the inquiry as part of a personal, political fightback was in danger of backfiring among backbenchers.
"If it is done secretively, it could be the final nail in his coffin," he said. "We need no less rigorous an examination on this than we had on the far less important issue of MPs' expenses. A secret examination would be worthless." A total of 179 UK service personnel have died since the March 2003, invasion, and a Liberal Democrat spokesman said yesterday: "We have always argued that we need a full public inquiry into the events that led us into this disastrous war.
"For this inquiry to be successful, it needs to be fully open, so that the whole country can understand the decisions that led us into the worst foreign policy mistake since Suez." The inquiry is expected to look at how the decisions were made to join the invasion, including the basis for intelligence reports indicating the existence of weapons of mass destruction, which, as events proved, Saddam Hussein never possessed.
It will also look at the bloody aftermath of the war, including Britain's often-criticised decision to withdraw from Basra and, in effect, leave the administration of the city in the hands of local militias. Mr Brown is believed to have asked Gus O'Donnell, who, as cabinet secretary, is the UK's highest ranking civil servant, to look at the scope, membership and timing of the inquiry. There is expected to be some opportunities for the public and media to hear discussions, but these would be strictly limited.
Senior military officers are reportedly worried that soldiers who took part in the conflict might be called to account for their actions. A senior source at the ministry of defence was quoted as telling a Sunday newspaper: "British soldiers were not involved in any way in the political decision to invade Iraq. Nor were they involved in the lack of planning for a post-conflict country, and the uprising that followed.
"To call them to account would be an appalling travesty." There have been suggestions that, in a bid to ensure impartiality, Mr Brown would appoint a senior Muslim official to head the inquiry. Rose Gentle, an anti-war campaigner whose teenage son was killed in Iraq in 2004, told the Observer yesterday that families who had lost sons and daughters in the conflict would march on Downing Street to protest if the proposed Iraq inquiry was held in private.
She said that it was crucial that the government dispelled concerns over the reasons for invading Iraq. "What is the point of an inquiry behind closed doors?" she asked. "No family would be happy with that. We already feel that we have been lied to by the government. "We don't want any more lies. We would be prepared to go to Downing Street if the inquiry is not transparent." The Conservatives, the main opposition party whose MPs supported the invasion, welcomed the inquiry.
William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, said: "Given that many key decisions and events were in 2002 and 2003, it is vital that an inquiry starts work with all possible speed. "It is crucial that it has access to all government papers, and that it is able to report on what went wrong with the planning and co-ordination of the occupation of Iraq, as well as the decisions about the war itself."