It's been nearly seven years since the British government decided to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq despite vocal opposition from antiwar activists at home, as well as a host of countries around the world. Years later, the bloody conflict, which claimed the lives of 179 British soldiers, remains deeply divisive in Britain. Revelations about former Prime Minister Tony Blair's intentions in the run-up to the war, as well as the views of military commanders during the fighting, continue to make front-page headlines and dominate the national debate.
Now, an inquiry into the war the most sweeping to be undertaken by any nation involved in the invasion may finally help Britain put the conflict to rest. The so-called Iraq inquiry is nominally charged with suggesting how to avoid making mistakes in future conflicts, but many Brits believe it has the potential to evolve into a sort of truth and reconciliation commission. Although legally nonbinding, the inquiry will over the course of the next 18 months focus on three of the most contentious aspects of the war: the circumstances surrounding the flawed intelligence-gathering that led to the conflict, the rushed planning for the invasion and the lack of a coherent postwar-reconstruction plan.
"We are not a court," John Chilcot, a retired civil servant who is leading the inquiry, said in an opening statement Tuesday after a moment of silence to remember those killed in the conflict. "No one is on trial. But I make a commitment here that once we get to our final report, we will not shy away from making criticisms where they are warranted. [We will be] thorough, rigorous, fair and frank."
This is not the first inquiry into the war. In 2003, the Hutton Inquiry examined the reasons behind the suicide of a British government scientist who had been the source of media reports claiming that Blair had "sexed up" intelligence assessments of Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction program before the war. In 2004, the Butler Review into prewar British intelligence reports concluded that key information used to justify the war had been unreliable and that British intelligence services were guilty of a number of failings. In the U.S., a 2004 Republican-led Senate report on U.S. prewar intelligence-gathering also found a number of mistakes, including the failure of the CIA to communicate the uncertainty of its assessments to policymakers.
But the two previous British inquiries, which had been authorized by Blair's government, were criticized by opponents of the war for being too narrowly focused and timid in their criticism of the country's leadership. By taking a wide scope and examining almost every aspect of the war, from Britain's pre-Sept. 11 policies on Iraq to the end of British combat operations in April of this year, the Iraq inquiry may offer a definitive portrait of the problems associated with the invasion.
Media reports in Britain have suggested that some of the inquiry's findings could be politically explosive. Based on a series of secret government documents and interviews with high-ranking British military officials, the Sunday Telegraph claimed that British military planning for an invasion started in February 2002, despite Blair's public statements that preparations had not begun that early. The Telegraph said the government documents showed that the secretive planning for the war resulted in a rushed operation "lacking in coherence and resources" that caused "significant risk" to troops and "critical failure" after the conflict. The paper also revealed what it termed "hostility" between British and American military leaders, including reports that the top British military commander in Iraq from November 2003 to July 2004, Major General Andrew Stewart, complained about a "real difficulty dealing with the American military," which dictated that there was "only one way: the American way."
Given the sensitivity of these and other aspects of the conflict, some of the war's fiercest critics including the family members of dead soldiers have expressed concerns that the Iraq inquiry was set up to "whitewash" British and American failures during the war. As the panel has no statutory powers, witnesses are not required to testify under legal oath. Some of Chilcot's fellow committee members, such as the British academic Lawrence Freedman, had also been enthusiastic supporters of the invasion. And, critics say, Chilcot himself has been deeply entrenched in the culture of Westminster for his entire government career.
Chilcot has said that his panel will be unbiased and he has already shown signs that it will be thorough and transparent. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown had suggested the inquiry should be held behind closed doors, but Chilcot insisted that many of the hearings be held in public. And with Brown's backing, Chilcot will call several high-profile witnesses to testify, including Blair, who will be questioned sometime in 2010. It will be the first time he appears before an Iraq war inquiry.
The inquiry may not publish its findings until 2011. But to the Brits for whom the failures of the Iraq war remain a stain on the nation, a full accounting can wait as long as needed. The liberal Guardian newspaper said the inquiry has the potential to "heal the wounds of war." "The primary aim of the probe," the paper's editorial page declared Monday, "must be to promote the reconciliation of the public with a political class which misled it so badly." Until then, the debate will undoubtedly continue.