Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair resisted public pressure for a comprehensive inquiry into the Iraq war. On June 15, his successor, Gordon Brown, raised the white flag, informing the House of Commons that he had ordered an inquiry even before British troops complete their withdrawal from Basra this summer. "Thanks to our efforts and those of our allies over six difficult years, a young democracy has replaced a vicious 30-year dictatorship," said the Prime Minister.
If everyone agreed that the Iraq war was a good thing, the British debate about the Iraq campaign and its messy aftermath would be drained of the roiling anger that continues to define it. But there would still be questions about Britain's role and legacy in Iraq, unresolved by two earlier inquiries. The 2003 Hutton Inquiry restricted its gaze to the circumstances around the death of a British official named David Kelly, who had criticized the government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). A year later, the Butler Inquiry examined the quality of intelligence that informed the government's decision to join the Iraq campaign. The independent, private inquiry announced by Brown is set to consider a period from the buildup to the conflict in the summer of 2001 to July of this year.
The inquiry committee, made up of two historians, a diplomat and a member of the House of Lords without party affiliations, and chaired by a civil servant, Sir John Chilcot, can be expected to probe the political hinterland to Britain's actions, in particular the government's abandonment of its oft-stated objective of destroying Saddam Hussein's WMD in favor of pursuing regime change. Among other conundrums likely to be scrutinized: To what extent did British concerns about the dangers of American unilateralism trump competing fears about the reliability of intelligence and risk of rupturing European relations? How much effort went into postwar planning? Why did Britain continue to reduce its forces in Basra even as the Shi'ite insurgency gained pace?
The objective of the inquiry, Brown told the House of Commons, is not to apportion blame but to learn lessons to "strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military." Critics cast doubt on the ability of an investigation conducted in camera to deliver transparency. "What is the point of an inquiry behind closed doors? No family would be happy with that," said Rose Gentle in a statement issued by the campaign group she founded, Military Families Against the War. Her son Gordon was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra in 2004, one of 179 casualties among 45,000 British troops deployed in Iraq since the invasion. "We already feel that we have been lied to by the government," she said. "We don't want any more lies."
Modeled on the 1982 Franks Inquiry into the Falklands War, the new inquiry has no powers of subpoena and will hold no public hearings. Its report will be published, but with some information considered potentially harmful to national security redacted. Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and member of two key parliamentary committees, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and the Security and Intelligence Committee, suggests the inquiry can make sense of events only if it takes evidence in America. "One presumes this inquiry would want to talk to Rumsfeld and Cheney and George W. himself, although I doubt that they will make themselves available," says Campbell.
The Iraq war was a "catastrophic foreign policy decision," according to Campbell. One key witness, who has privately already signaled his willingness to attend, will hope to see that decision vindicated. Blair, now Middle East Peace Envoy for the European Union, United Nations, U.S. and Russia and a front-runner to become the E.U.'s first president, continues to insist he made the right call. "It was right to remove Saddam. It was right to give the country a chance to have the democratic process," he told an interviewer a month before he stepped down as British Prime Minister in June 2007, fatally weakened by public anger over Iraq.
"God gives power to whomsoever he chooses and he also takes it away." That's the resonant Koranic inscription around the cupola of Basra Palace, one of many lavish residences Saddam commissioned for himself. Whatever the Iraq-war inquiry discovers, it's on the streets of Basra, which was under British control until this spring, that Britain's legacy will finally be judged. Earlier this year, a Basrawi policeman on sentry duty outside the palace told TIME of his optimism for the future. "For the first time in our history, we're allowed a diversity of opinions," he said. But asked if he credited Britain with helping to establish the fledgling democracy that allows this diversity, he clammed up. "If I'm frank with you, I will be punished by my commander," he said. "If I answer from my heart, I will lose my job." A second policeman, listening to the conversation, had fewer reservations. "America and Britain didn't come here to help the Iraqis," he interjected. "Anything you did, you did for your own benefit." With cynicism about the motivations for the war widespread in Iraq and back in Britain, any inquiry, however flawed, is surely a welcome one.