Iraq inquiry to ask Blair to testify
LONDON (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Tony Blair will be called to testify to a panel investigating Britain's involvement in the Iraq war, the head of the inquiry said on Thursday, promising a thorough and independent probe.
Former civil servant John Chilcot said the inquiry, ordered by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, would look at the run-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the war and its aftermath.
The five-member panel, which also includes eminent historian Martin Gilbert, will examine the decisions taken by the government and look at the legality of the war.
Chilcot said the witnesses would include Blair and "other senior figures involved in decision-taking" although he would not say if Brown, who took over from Blair as prime minister two years ago, would be called to testify.
Asked how the inquiry would avoid suspicions it was a "whitewash," Chilcot said the panel would do the job "as thoroughly, as fairly, as independently as we can."
He said the inquiry could single out officials for blame.
"If we find that people fell short in their duty, made mistakes (or) acted wrongly, we shall most certainly say so and say so clearly," he told a news conference.
A spokesman for Blair said he would cooperate fully with whatever format Chilcot set for the inquiry.
Chilcot said the inquiry would last until late next year, at the earliest. That means that its conclusions, which could be politically damaging to the Labour government, will not be published before a national election due by next June.
But Brown runs the risk that the panel's hearings, some of which will be in public, could embarrass the government in an election year.
The Conservatives' foreign policy spokesman William Hague welcomed Chilcot's commitment to hold open sessions and apportion blame. But he said the panel was narrow and lacking in cabinet or military experience.
Chilcot said his panel may ask any British citizen to appear and inspect any document held by the government, including U.S. documents. He expected the panel to visit Iraq.
Chilcot said he wanted to talk to people in the United States and elsewhere. Asked if the panel might talk to former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who also sent troops to Iraq, he did not rule out discussions with "key international figures" in the U.S.-led coalition.
But he said the panel could not compel people to appear and witnesses would not testify under oath.
Blair's decision to send 45,000 British forces to take part in the invasion to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has always been controversial because of the lack of a United Nations resolution authorising military action.
It provoked massive anti-war protests in London and led to the resignations of ministers.
The number of deaths of British soldiers totalled179 during the conflict.
A government dossier justifying the war contained the claim that Saddam was capable of launching weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. No such weapons were found.
The Labour government resisted opposition pressure to hold an inquiry into the war while British troops were in Iraq, but most have now left.
Brown said initially the hearings would be held in private, citing national security concerns. But after a public outcry and after Chilcot threw his support behind largely open hearings, part of the proceedings will now be held in public.
Chilcot said some hearings could be televised or streamed live on the Internet.
(Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby; editing by Ron Askew)
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