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UK Iraq war inquiry: Will Tony Blair come under fire?

A UK Iraq war inquiry began Tuesday, amid allegations that British soldiers abused detainees during the war. The panel is to focus on how and why Britain went to war.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2009

This video grab shows Chairman John Chilcot (center) speaking during the first day of the Iraq Inquiry in central London on Tuesday.

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London

Britain's official inquiry into the Iraq war got under way in London on Tuesday, but it's not likely to satisfy many of those who have long been awaiting it.

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Critics of the war probably won't get what they most want from the government-appointed panel – a public drubbing of unpopular former Prime Minister Tony Blair for leading the nation to war in the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And supporters of the war are unlikely to get a clear declaration that Britain's participation in the invasion was the right thing to do.

Battling Britons' low expectations for the government-appointed panel, chairman John Chilcot insisted in an opening statement that it would not hold back from criticizing institutions and individuals where this was "warranted."

A 'whitewash?'

A chorus of voices from across the political and legal spectrum is predicting that the inquiry, tasked with uncovering how and why Britain went to war, will be a "whitewash" and questions the competence of its six-member panel – which includes not a single lawyer or judge – to address the key issue of whether the invasion was illegal. 

Attempts to bolster the inquiry's credibility were also damaged Sunday when a British newspaper published leaked government documents containing interviews the inquiry panel had conducted with senior military figures. The interviews showed that plans for the 2003 invasion were drafted more than a year earlier, contradicting previous statements made by Mr. Blair on the military buildup.

Antiwar protesters outside the inquiry this morning said cynically that Blair, who is expected to testify before the inquiry early next year, would be given "a warm welcome" when he appears.

"We're here to remind people that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and George W. Bush are not innocent and that they should face charges for war crimes," said Elly Badcock.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown agreed only reluctantly to the inquiry – the first official inquiry of three in Britain – once the last British troops left Iraq. He initially announced it would be closed to the public, but then relented – though "sensitive information" will still not be heard in public. Witnesses will not be under oath and immunity from disciplinary action has been granted to serving officials and military personnel.

The military is set to start its own examination of the war in January, and a similar government-appointed probe is under way in the Netherlands. The seven-member panel, including senior judges and figures who opposed the war, are scrutinizing British reasoning for the invasion.

Alleged abuses

Uncomfortable reminders of the conflict have not been far from the headlines for most of this month as a result of a barrage of claims about alleged abuses by British troops.

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