Iraq war inquiry begins in London 2009-11-24 20:42:53   Print

    BEIJING, November 24 (Xinhuanet) -- The inquiry into the events surrounding the Iraq war began in London on Tuesday.

    Over the course of the next few months, Sir John Chilcot's panel will hear evidence from senior civil servants, intelligence officials and ex-military commanders.

    In opening the Iraq Inquiry, Chilcot vowed that he would "get to the heart of what happened" before and during the war and "will not shy away" from criticizing anyone who made mistakes.

    Chilcot, a privy council member and former civil servant, was appointed as the chair of the inquiry in June 2009.

    The inquiry chairman said he and his team would be "thorough, rigorous, fair and frank" throughout the long-awaited hearing, which aims to "piece together from the evidence" what went right and what went wrong.

    He also insisted that as well as hearing from politicians and military officers, "we want to know what people across Britain think are the important questions", and invited anyone who felt they had "relevant" information to contact the inquiry. The five-strong panel has already held meetings with the families of servicemen killed in Iraq, and with Iraq veterans.

    It was a conflict that stirred deep opposition in Britain as former Prime Minister Tony Blair broke ranks with major European allies to join the United States in the 2003 invasion. The probe seems likely to illuminate hitherto unpublicized aspects of the relationship between London and Washington that led critics to depict Mr. Blair as a slavish junior partner in his alliance with President George W. Bush.

    According to official Defense Ministry documents leaked to a British newspaper Monday on the eve of the inquiry's opening there was a climate of stark animosity among senior British officers toward American military commanders.

    The revelations published in the Daily Telegraph show deep divisions existed between the two allies. It is revealed that British officers' refusal to carry out American orders resulted in a formal State Department rebuke in 2004 to Britain's ambassador in Washington, Sir David Manning.

    The newspaper quoted the British commander in southern Iraq at the time, Major General Andrew Stewart, as saying he spent "a significant amount of my time 'consenting and evading' U.S. orders" to take military action against a powerful Shiite militia in the south, and engaging in negotiation instead.

    Col. J. K. Tanner, chief of staff to General Stewart until June 2004 in the British divisional headquarters in the southern city of Basra, was quoted in the transcripts as saying that British commanders found that the Americans then in overall command in Baghdad, led by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, were resistant to dialogue and negotiation over military strategy and other issues, to the point of "arrogance" and an insensitivity the colonel compared to "dealing with a group of Martians."

    "The whole system was appalling," Colonel Tanner said. "We experienced real difficulty in dealing with the American military and civilian organizations who, partly through arrogance and partly through bureaucracy, dictate that there is only one way: the American way."

    He added, "Despite our so-called 'special relationship,' I reckon that we were treated no differently to the Portuguese." Speaking of the Americans, he said, "They need to reintroduce dialogue as a tool of command because, although it is easy to speak to Americans face to face and understand each other completely, dealing with them corporately is akin to dealing with a group of Martians. If it isn't on the PowerPoint slide, it doesn't happen."

    The inquiry, which is being held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, is expected to hear at least six months of evidence before Sir John publishes his report at the end of 2010 or early in 2011.

    Tony Blair, the former prime minister who controversially took Britain to war in Iraq in 2003, will be among the scores of witnesses who will give evidence, but he is not expected to be heard until next year.

    One of the key questions which the inquiry will have to answer is whether Blair misled parliament in any way over the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, who was said at the time to be in possession of weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed at 45 minutes' notice.

    The intelligence about Iraq's military capability, set out in the so-called "dodgy dossier", proved to be wrong, and the decision to go to war became one of the most controversial foreign policy decisions in living memory.


Editor: Rob Welham
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