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British open investigation into Iraq war

Panel examines role, eagerness to please US

By John F. Burns
New York Times / November 25, 2009

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LONDON - A long-awaited inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war began yesterday and immediately homed in on the question that seems set to dominate its work: whether the former prime minister, Tony Blair, and his government were drawn into the conflict - over the objections of Britain’s defense and foreign policy establishment - by an eagerness to please the United States.

The issue ran like a seam through the first day’s hearings at a conference center in the heart of London’s Whitehall district, the center of government. One after another, top public servants who were the inquiry’s opening witnesses, most of them now retired, were questioned about the ways in which they supported - or, more often, resisted - prowar policies favored by the administration of President George W. Bush.

The five inquiry commissioners, led by Sir John Chilcot, a retired Whitehall mandarin, set out to look into some of the most contentious issues Britain and the United States faced as they prepared for war. Principal among these was how Britain shifted from its proclaimed policy of “containment’’ toward Saddam Hussein and embraced the so-called regime change policy favored by Bush.

Some have long suspected that Blair secretly pledged Britain to support the toppling of Hussein a year or more before the invasion, while he said publicly that his aim was to avoid war by pressing Hussein to abandon Iraq’s program to develop unconventional weapons. After the invasion, the Iraqi program was found to have been effectively defunct for years.

Witnesses at the inquiry described British officials’ wariness toward the more aggressive policies favored in Washington. Sir Peter Ricketts, a former chairman of Britain’s powerful Joint Intelligence Committee, said officials in London knew even before Bush came to office in 2001 that there were “voices’’ in Washington calling for Hussein to be removed from power. But, he said, it was Britain’s policy then and later to contain the Iraqi leader, not topple him.

William Patey, a former head of the Middle East department in the Foreign Office, offered a similar account, saying Condoleezza Rice and others had raised the possibility of ousting Hussein before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. “We were aware of those drumbeats from Washington,’’ Patey said. “Our policy was to stay away from that end of the spectrum.’’

Blair is not expected to testify until early next year. With Whitehall officials dominating the early testimony, there was none of the sharp cut-and-thrust that characterizes many congressional inquiries in Washington. One BBC reporter likened the mood in his radio report to “ ‘Yes Minister’ without the laughs,’’ a reference to a 1980s Whitehall-based television comedy, popular on both sides of the Atlantic, in which top British politicians were regularly bamboozled by wily bureaucrats.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who yielded to years of pressure for an inquiry when he approved it this summer, has been criticized for delaying to the point that the panel’s final report, now expected at the end of 2010 or later, will not be available when Britons vote in a general election next spring.

But Chilcot, the panel’s chairman, whose last post in government was as the top civil servant in the Northern Ireland office, seemed keen to allay concerns about the panel’s readiness to confront the hard political issues. In an opening statement, he said the investigation would be “thorough, impartial, objective, and fair.’’

The inquiry is not empowered to take evidence on oath, and was directed, when it was impaneled this summer on Brown’s orders, to concentrate on findings of fact and not to assign blame for what went wrong in Iraq. Critics who suspected a whitewash were further alarmed when Brown’s original plan required the panel to take evidence behind closed doors, a condition that was quickly abandoned under pressure from war critics and the commissioners.

The panel has also come under criticism for the fact that the commissioners - including two political historians, a former British ambassador to Russia and the head of a panel that reviews appointments to Britain’s judiciary - included no political heavyweights and nobody with relevant legal experience.

Critics have suggested that this could be a handicap when the panel reviews whether Britain’s participation in the Iraq invasion was lawful under British and international law, a pressing issue among the government’s critics.