MPs call for Iraq War inquiry to be held in public

June 16, 2009 at 3:35 pm Leave a comment

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by Tony Grew

Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative MPs have attacked the decision to hold an inquiry into the Iraq War in private.

The Prime Minister came to the Commons to announce the inquiry yesterday.

“Our troops first went into Iraq in March 2003 and now they are coming home,” Gordon Brown said.

“In total, 120,000 men and women have served in Iraq during the last six years, so it is fitting that I should now come to the House to talk of their achievements through difficult times; to chart the new relationship we are building with Iraq; and to set out our plans for an inquiry into the conflict.

“As always, we can be supremely proud of the way our armed forces carried out their mission—proud of their valour in the heat of combat, which is recognised in many citations for awards and decorations; and proud of their vigilance and resolution amid the most difficult imaginable conditions and the ever-present risk of attack by an unseen enemy.

“Today we continue to mourn and to remember the 179 men and women who gave their lives in Iraq in the service of our country.”

Mr Brown said that the UK would continue to invest in Iraq’s future.

“On the day of that last combat patrol in April, I welcomed Prime Minister Maliki and most of his Cabinet to London,” Mr Brown said.

“We signed together a declaration of friendship, partnership and co-operation defining the new relationship between our two countries for the future. At the request of the Iraqi Government, a small number of British Navy personnel—no more than 100—will remain in Iraq for long-term training of the Iraqi Army.

“Royal Navy ships will continue to protect the oil platforms on which Iraq’s exports depend, and we will continue to offer training to the Iraqi army as part of a wider NATO mission.

“We will also offer training opportunities at Sandhurst and elsewhere in the United Kingdom for Iraqi officers of high potential.

“At the core of our new relationship, however, will be the diplomatic, trading and cultural links that we are building with the Iraqi people, supporting British and other foreign investors who want to play a role in the reconstruction of southern Iraq.”

Mr Brown said it is now “the right time” to learn the lessons of the “complex and often controversial events of the last six years.”

“I am today announcing the establishment of an independent Privy Counsellor committee of inquiry which will consider the period from summer 2001, before military operations began in March 2003, and our subsequent involvement in Iraq right up to the end of July this year.

“The inquiry is essential because it will ensure that, by learning lessons, we strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military.

“The inquiry will, I stress, be fully independent of Government. Its scope is unprecedented. It covers an eight-year period, including the run-up to the conflict and the full period of conflict and reconstruction.

“The committee of inquiry will have access to the fullest range of information, including secret information. In other words, its investigation can range across all papers, all documents and all material. It can ask for any British document to be brought before it, and for any British citizen to appear.

“No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry.

“I have asked the members of the committee to ensure that the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information—that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security.

“The inquiry will receive the full co-operation of the Government. It will have access to all Government papers, and the ability to call any witnesses. The objective is to learn the lessons from the events surrounding the conflict.

“It is on that basis that I have accepted the Cabinet Secretary’s advice that the Franks inquiry (into the 1982 Falklands War) is the best precedent.

“Like the Franks inquiry, this inquiry will take account of national security considerations—for example, what might damage or reduce our military capability in the future—and evidence will be heard in private.

“I believe that that will also ensure that evidence given by serving and former ministers, military officers and officials is as full and candid as possible. The committee will publish its findings in as full a form as possible.

“These findings will then be debated in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is in these debates, as well as from the report itself, that we can draw fully upon the lessons learned in Iraq.”

Mr Brown told the House that the membership of the committee will consist “entirely” of non-partisan public figures acknowledged to be experts and leaders in their fields.

“There will be no representatives of political parties from either side of this House. I can announce that the committee of inquiry will be chaired by Sir John Chilcot and it will include Baroness Usha Prashar, Sir Roderick Lyne, Sir Lawrence Freedman and Sir Martin Gilbert. All are, or will become, Privy Counsellors.

“The committee will start work as soon as possible after the end of July.”

David Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition, said he agreed with some of the statement, such as the need for a strong relationship between democratic Iraq and Britain.

“We welcome an inquiry—indeed, we have been calling for it for many months—but I have to say that I am far from convinced that the Prime Minister has got it right,” he said.

“The whole point of having an inquiry is that it has to be able to make clear recommendations, to go wherever the evidence leads, to establish the full truth and to ensure that the right lessons are learned, and it has to do so in a way that builds public confidence.

“Is there not a danger that what the Prime Minister has announced today will not achieve those objectives?

“The membership looks quite limited, the terms of reference seem restrictive, the inquiry is not specifically tasked with making recommendations and none of it will be held in public.”

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, whose party opposed the war, was concerned that the inquiry would be held in secret.

“I passionately believe that we were wrong to invade Iraq, but I am second to none in my admiration for the bravery and dedication of our servicemen and women,” he told the House.

“Everyone knows that the invasion of Iraq was the biggest foreign policy mistake that this country has made in generations—the single most controversial decision taken by Government since Suez—so I am staggered that the Prime Minister is seeking to compound that error, which was fatal for so many of Britain’s sons and daughters, by covering up the path that led to it.

“The Liberal Democrats have called for an inquiry into the build-up and conduct of the Iraq war for many years. I suppose we can be grateful that, finally, the Prime Minister has acceded to that demand.

“However, as is so often the case, he has taken a step in the right direction but missed the fundamental point.

“A secret inquiry, conducted by a clutch of grandees hand-picked by the Prime Minister, is not what Britain needs.

“Does the Prime Minister not understand that the purpose of an inquiry is not just to produce a set of conclusions but to allow the people of Britain to come to terms with a mistake made in their name?

“I have met the families of the soldiers who have lost their lives in Iraq and just an hour ago they asked me to speak in their name and to tell the Prime Minister that nothing short of a fully public inquiry, held in the open, will satisfy them.

“The Prime Minister says that the inquiry has to be held in private to protect national security, but it looks to me suspiciously as though he wants to protect his reputation and that of his predecessor instead.

“Why else would he want the inquiry to report after the general election when we could have at least interim reports before then?

“For six years, we have watched our brave servicemen and women putting their lives on the line for a war that we did not support and could not understand. To rebuild public trust, the inquiry must be held in public.”

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith welcomed the inquiry but suggested it have “a slightly wider membership and include some ex-military members.”

“To give it a little more cutting edge, it could also include some senior politicians,” he said.

“Further, because I believe that there is ultimately nothing to hide, the reality is that some hearings must be held in public. I urge the Prime Minister to think again about that.”

Mr Brown said that military personnel at a senior level who are either retired or serving officers will be in a position to give evidence to the inquiry.

“I think it important that they are given the chance to do so, and that they can speak frankly. That means that the sessions will be better held in private than in public.”

Labour MP Mike Gapes said he welcomed the removal of “the brutal, fascist regime of Saddam, and I think that Iraq is a much better country today than it could ever have been while the regime continued.”

He said the origins of the conflict go beyond 2001.

“We were bombing Iraq in 1998. Saddam was gassing the Kurds in 1988. There is a context and a history. I hope that the inquiry will look at the context and the history, and not just start events at 9/11.”

The Prime Minister said the inquiry will be free to take some of those events into consideration, “but it must focus itself on a period, which is the immediate run-up to the conflict, the conflict itself and the reconstruction afterwards.”

Former Labour Cabinet minister Clare Short, who resigned over the war and later lost the Labour whip, asked if it could have been done differently.

“Could Saddam Hussein have been indicted, and could a lot of Iraqis have not lost their lives?” she asked.

“We all agree that we mourn the loss of our soldiers, their injuries and the number of soldiers who are mentally ill, but should we not regret the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the displacement of millions?

“We need senior politicians who understand political decision making, and senior military people who can understand the decisions that were made.

“The inquiry is welcome, but surely it should be allowed to have hearings in private or in public as it sees fit, rather than having them kept completely secret.”

Labour MP Denis MacShane asked if the inquiry to take evidence from people in Iraq.

“People suffered under Saddam’s dictatorship and were freed from it, and then had to accept an onslaught from jihadi Islamist extremists, Iranians, al-Qaeda and Syria, which our troops helped to resist,” he said.

“Those groups are responsible for the death of people in Iraq, and we should not let the lie go out that their evil is in any way attributable to the decisions of this Government and the other democratic Governments of the world.”

The Prime Minister said that who will give evidence is a matter for the inquiry.

Veteran Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell said that the disastrous effect of the war has been to make Iran the dominant power in the Middle East.

“What the British people want is an explanation, well before the general election 11 months from now, of how it came about that Mr Blair was able to persuade Parliament to vote in favour of the war on facts which he knew would not stand up to proper examination.”

Labour’s Bob Marshall-Andrews had two questions.

“The first is why the House was never informed of the contents of the Downing Street minute that revealed knowledge six months before the conflict that the Bush Administration had decided on the inevitability of war, whatever the concessions that were made.

“The second matter that requires explanation is why the Attorney-General’s opinion on the legality of the war was never shown to the Cabinet before the decision to go to war was made.

“Neither of those matters—neither of them—affects state security. Neither of them requires phalanxes of lawyers. Why cannot they be ventilated and canvassed in public, and without delay?”

The Prime Minister said Mr Marshall-Andrews “may wish to offer evidence to the inquiry.”

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said the inquiry is “a disappointing response to what is, by common consent, regarded as a catastrophic foreign policy decision.”

“On the form of inquiry that he proposes, can he tell us whether it will have the power not to ask for witnesses, but to compel witnesses to attend and to put them on oath so that their evidence may be verified against that background?” he asked.

“Let me ask him, finally, how he thinks the kind of inquiry that he proposes will satisfy the millions of Britons who marched against the war, when the inquiry will meet in private even when the national interest will not require it?”

SNP MP Stewart Hosie said the Iraq conflict has led to the loss of 179 UK service personnel, 4,600 coalition personnel and about 150,000 Iraqi civilians.

“Their loved ones want to know the cause of the war and why their loved ones fell. If every evidence session is held in private, that may not be possible, so will the Prime Minister think again about holding a secret inquiry? It is the wrong thing to do.”

Labour MP Gordon Prentice said he was “not prepared to accept” a secret inquiry into Iraq.

“May I ask the Prime Minister this? After everything that he has been saying, why on earth did he not consult the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and the other political parties on the inquiry’s terms of reference, its membership and how long it would take? Why did he take it upon himself again to tell the House what was in its best interests?”

Gordon Brown said that while the inquiry will be held in private, the report will be published for MPs to debate.

“People will be able to see for themselves what conclusions are drawn by the inquiry,” he said.

“At the same time, as I said to the House earlier, I have asked the inquiry to publish all the information other than the most sensitive military and security information.

“The House will therefore have a chance to debate a fully comprehensive report that covers eight years and covers all issues in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the conflict.”

photo: MoD website

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