Sunday, June 21, 2009

Blair faces calls to appear at public Iraq war inquiry

Tony Blair faces calls to appear at public Iraq war inquiry after plan backfires

Tony Blair tried to stop the Iraq war inquiry being held in public as new evidence emerged suggesting that he knew Saddam Hussein may not have weapons of mass destruction.

The former Prime Minister lobbied Sir Gus O’Donnell, the head of the Civil Service, fearing that a public appearance at the inquiry, headed by Sir John Chilcott, could turn into a “show trial”.

The move appears to have backfired this weekend, as it emerges that part of the inquiry will now be heard in public and Mr Blair is the focus of calls to appear.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said this morning that the former Prime Minister cannot appear behind closed doors and must speak under oath. Otherwise “people [will] feel this is just a grand cover-up for, after all, what was the biggest foreign policy mistake this country has made since Suez”.

Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary in the lead up to the Iraq war, said he was more than happy to appear in public, adding “I'm sure [Mr Blair] is too.”

This news comes amid new evidence to suggest that Mr Blair knew that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.

A memo dated January 31, 2003, by Sir David Manning, then Mr Blair’s policy adviser, outlines how President Bush told Mr Blair he had decided on a start date for the war — almost two months before the invasion.

Paraphrasing the President’s comments at the meeting, Sir David noted: “The start date for the military campaign was now pencilled in for March 10. This was when the bombing would begin.”

The memo also suggested that Mr Blair and Mr Bush contemplated other scenarios that might trigger a second UN resolution, legitimising military action in case UN weapons inspectors failed to find WMD.

Mr Bush told Mr Blair that they had developed plans to draw Iraq into combat by flying “U2 reconnaissance aircraft painted in UN colours over Iraq with fighter cover”. If Saddam Hussein fired at the planes, it would put the Iraqi leader in breach of UN resolutions.

In public at this time, Mr Blair was justifying plans for an invasion on the grounds that Iraq might have weapons of mass destruction.

Philippe Sands, a law professor and human rights campaigner, said that the existence of such evidence made it vital that the inquiry was not held in private.

There are signs of divisions at the highest levels of government over the issue, with Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland Secretary, defending the initial decision to hold the inquiry in private.

Mr Woodward highlighted the example of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, into events in January 1972 in which 27 people died, which began in 2000 and has still not reported. He said that the British public would not accept an Iraq war inquiry that lasted nine years, adding that public inquiries took years to conduct and often involve judicial review.

"The public want to learn lessons and learn them fast . . . nine or ten years to get an answer is not enough," he said.

The Times understands that Sir John already believes that it will be hard to complete the inquiry within a year because of the volume of evidence and number of issues it must consider.

Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, had taken the Franks Inquiry into the Falklands War, which was held in private, as a model, Mr Straw said. “That was what the Conservatives had been calling for time after time after time, and they dismissed other inquiries that had been held,” he told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1.

“Now Franks was held in private exclusively. It was for that reason, no other, that Gordon Brown decided to do that.”

Mr Clegg said that he would be meeting Sir John this week to tell him that the only way for the inquiry to have legitimacy was for it to be as public as possible. He added: “If the inquiry is to have any legitimacy the prime architect of the decision to go to war in Iraq, alongside George Bush, should give his evidence in public under oath.”

Mr Blair has not gone public with the view that the inquiry should be held in private. His spokesman said: “This was a decision for the current Prime Minister, not for Tony Blair.”

After an array of senior figures denounced the decision to hold hearings in private, Downing Street said on Thursday that Sir John would have some discretion in how he conducted proceedings.

The attack was led by Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, and Lord Butler of Brockwell, head of the last official inquiry on the war, who accused ministers of putting the Government’s political interest ahead of the national interest.

Sir John warned that the inquiry risked being dismissed as a “whitewash” unless there was full disclosure with witnesses giving evidence on oath. Senior military figures, including the former head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, called for open hearings, while the cross-party Public Administration Committee demanded a complete rethink of the inquiry arrangements.

Mr Brown is facing a testing Commons vote on Wednesday on a Tory motion calling for the evidence to be heard largely in public.

There are signs that Labour rebels could join forces with opposition parties to inflict a repeat of the Government’s damaging defeat over settlement rights for Gurkha veterans.

Downing Street said: “We have always been clear that we consulted a number of people before announcing the commencement of the inquiry, including former government figures. We are not going to get into the nature of those discussions.

“The Prime Minister takes full responsibility for the statement he made on Monday. He has asked Sir John Chilcot to come forward with recommendations on how the inquiry should best be conducted, so the suggestion that some in-principle decision has already been taken is just plain wrong."