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

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    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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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.

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."

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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.

The latest allegations emerged in reports Nov. 18. Dozens of former prisoners at a British Army interrogation center in Iraq claim they suffered torture similar to the interrogation techniques used at Guantánamo Bay.

Those follow separate claims made two days earlier by a former soldier, Britain's first convicted war criminal. The soldier told an inquiry into the death of an Iraqi man in British military custody that abuse of Iraqi civilians was widespread and sanctioned by officers.

Bill Rammell, Britain's Armed Forces minister, said that all claims would be investigated but insisted that allegations did not equal facts, adding that there was no credible evidence that abuse was systematic.

While many in the British military have privately described the effects of the Iraq as "corrosive" on troop morale and on public support for overseas operations, these latest allegations could not have come at a worse time for a government struggling to shore up support for the Afghan campaign.

British need to improve counterinsurgency

Michael Codner, director of the Military Sciences department at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said that he was not convinced that the British involvement in southern part of Iraq would be looked on in the future as a strategic failure, adding: "The British did not crawl out with their tails between their legs."

In fact, he said that the eventual withdrawal of British troops from a wider area of occupation in southern Iraq to garrisons from which they supported local security forces is the logical next step in Afghanistan

"When the military looks back on Iraq now, you get an acknowledgement that mistakes were made, but that appropriate changes needed to be made and have been made."

David Betz, of King's College, London, who has examined British strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, pointed out the British military is preparing to start its own formal study of the Iraq war in January.

"However, in the shorter term, what they have already taken from it [the war] is the sense and realization that the British Army is not terribly good at counterinsurgency, that they rested on their laurels to a large extent," he says. "There is a pretty strong sense that the Americans really surpassed them quite quickly."

Also:

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Another Abu Ghraib? Iraqis claim abuse by British troops

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