LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a long-awaited probe Monday into Britain's decision to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq but opponents accused him of a cover-up by holding the inquiry in private.
Brown's government, and that of his predecessor Tony Blair, have resisted pressure to hold an inquiry into the war until British troops left Iraq.
With all but 500 British troops now out of Iraq, Brown told parliament, "Now is the right time to ensure we have a proper process in place to learn the lessons of the complex, and often controversial events of the last six years."
Analysts said Brown may have timed the probe to shore up his support on the left of the Labour Party and with disenchanted Labour voters after disastrous European election results and an attempted revolt against him this month.
But he angered critics by refusing to hold the hearings in public, citing national security concerns, and by limiting the investigators to a group of top civil servants and academics.
Brown also said that the inquiry would take about a year, pushing it beyond the next national election, thus avoiding any possible political damage to the government.
"Everyone knows that the invasion of Iraq was the biggest foreign policy mistake this country has made in generations," said Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, who opposed the Iraq war.
"I am staggered that the prime minister today is seeking to compound that error ... by covering up the path that led to it," he said, saying Brown was setting up a "secret inquiry conducted by a clutch of grandees handpicked by the prime minister."
Brown said the inquiry would consider events from the summer of 2001 up to the end of July this year.
"The primary objective of the committee will be to identify lessons learned. The committee will not set out to apportion blame or consider issues of civil or criminal liability," he said. "No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry."
David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives who beat the Labour party in the polls, said the inquiry should be able to name names. "If mistakes were made, we need to know who made them and why they were made," he said.
As Washington's closest ally, Britain sent 45,000 troops to join the invasion to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on the grounds he was hiding weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.
Blair stood shoulder-to-shoulder with former U.S. President George W. Bush in conducting the war but its unpopularity in Britain was a factor in Blair's decision to step down mid-way through his third term in office in 2007.
Controversy has surrounded the government's unfounded claim before the war that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched within 45 minutes. Critics have also said that British troops lives were endangered because they were not given equipment they needed. Some 179 British solders died there.
Justin Fisher, professor of political science at Brunel University, said Brown's move "will appeal to disillusioned Labour voters who may have gone to other parties."
(Editing by Louise Ireland)