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Iraq War Inquiry Opens in UK

A public inquiry into the UK's role in the Iraq war has opened in London, with former civil servants first to appear in hearings that will climax with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, taking the stand.

Anti-war protesters from the 'Stop the War' group, wearing masks depicting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, right, former US president George W. Bush, center and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, pose for the photographers, outside the conference center where the Iraq war inquiry ia taking place, in central London, Tuesday Nov. 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) One-time senior officials from the foreign and defence ministries will outline Britain's policy towards Baghdad in early 2000, as the five-member committee investigates what lessons can be learned from the US-led war.

John Chilcot, the inquiry chairman and a former civil servant, said he was confident of producing a "full and insightful" account of the decision-making that led Britain to join the 2003 invasion against strong opposition at home and abroad.

An appearance by Blair, who took Britain into the conflict, is likely to be the highlight of the inquiry, although he and other Labour government figures are not due to give evidence until next year.

'Unprecedented' inquiry
Shane Greer, executive editor of Total Politics, a British political magazine and website, told Al Jazeera that he believes the inquiry will uncover new information about the Iraq war.

"First of all the scope of this inquiry is absolutely unprecedented. 

"Already back in July Sir John [Chilcot] began speaking with families of injured and killed soldiers ... now he's going onto the spy chiefs, civil servants ... and moving onto politicians.

"So I think we're going to see much more from this inquiry than any previous inquiry, because of course the frame of reference is so much wider, the access to information is so much wider.

"And also the inquiry has been given the power to apportion blame which really is quite incredible."

'No trial'

Chilcot has said that nobody will be on trial in the inquiry, held at a conference centre near parliament in central London, but has also vowed not to shy away from any criticism if the findings warrant it.

"No-one is on trial here. We cannot determine guilt or innocence. Only a court can do that.

"But I make a commitment here that once we get to our final report, we will not shy away from making criticisms, either of institutions or processes or  individuals, where they are truly warranted," he said in opening remarks.

Chilcot and his fellow committee members have already met families of some of the 179 British troops who died during the six-year conflict, who raised issues about whether they were properly equipped and trained.

The inquiry will also look into the justification for the war, principally the claim that Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president, had weapons of mass destruction. These weapons were never found.

Among the first witnesses to be called on Tuesday is Peter Ricketts, who chaired the government's senior intelligence committee between 2000 and 2001 before taking a senior post at the Foreign Office (FCO) between 2001 and 2003.

Also due to present statements at the hearing are William Patey, the former head of the FCO's Middle East department; Simon Webb, the fomer head of operational policy at the Ministry of Defence; and Michael Wood, an former FCO legal adviser.

War 'legality'

Families of soldiers who died in the conflict have said they want "honest" answers from the inquiry.

Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon died in Iraq in 2004, said: "We do hope that the committee are going to be honest ... I don't know why he died until the end of this inquiry," she said.

Demonstrators have protested outside the conference venue, with some dressed up as former US and UK leaders with blood on their hands.

Anti-war campaigners are calling for a ruling on the legality of the conflict, which was carried out without explicit approval by the United Nations Security Council.

Two official investigations into the run-up to the war have already taken place, but ministers had refused to hold a full inquiry until after the military deployment had ended.

Analysts have said the inquiry is incapable of addressing the key issue of whether the invasion was legal, because of a lack of lawyers and judges on its six-member committee.

An unnamed senior judge told The Guardian newspaper that analysing the war's legality was beyond the committee's competence.

 Source: Agencies
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