Gordon Brown has promised that the Government will hold a full-scale inquiry into the mistakes made in Iraq before and since the invasion five years ago. His concession marks a significant break from his predecessor, Tony Blair, who steadfastly refused to hold a wide-ranging inquiry into the war.
Mr Brown, however, insists it is not the right time for an immediate investigation as the situation in Iraq remains “fragile” and British troops are still trying to bring stability to the country. The Prime Minister said: “There is a need to learn all possible lessons from the military action in Iraq and its aftermath.”
On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the invasion on Thursday, Mr Blair’s former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, warned it could take “decades” to bring calm to Iraq. He also admitted the British and US governments had seriously underestimated the scale of the task before them in 2003.
Mr Brown’s promise came in a letter to Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society, who had urged him to mark the anniversary by announcing a public inquiry.
“There will come a time when it is appropriate to hold an inquiry,” said Mr Brown. “But whilst the whole effort of the Government and the armed forces is directed towards supporting the people and government of Iraq as they forge a future based on reconciliation, democracy, prosperity and security, we believe that is not now.”
The Prime Minister added: “Despite the progress made on the security, economic and political fronts in Iraq, the situation remains fragile and could easily be reversed. At this critical time it is therefore vital that the Government does not divert attention from supporting Iraq’s development as a secure and stable country.”
Insisting that “real progress” is being made in Iraq, Mr Brown said the transfer of all four provinces in the south of the country to the Iraqi authorities was “ample evidence” of the sterling work done by UK forces and its coalition partners. “But the work is not complete,” he said. “Our troops will remain in Iraq to train and support the Iraqi army, whilst our diplomatic missions will continue to work with the government of Iraq to use the space created by the improved security environment to make real progress on political reconciliation and economic development.”
Mr Katwala welcomed Mr Brown’s statement, saying: “It is very good news that the Prime Minister is personally committed to an inquiry on Iraq. I wrote to him to make the case for an inquiry because I was not aware of any previous statement from Gordon Brown since he became Prime Minister, or from the current Foreign Secretary, making the Government’s policy clear.”
He added: “Many people who believe this is important should be pleased to see the Prime Minister confirm that there will be an inquiry.”
Mr Katwala said he understood Mr Brown’s desire to focus on current efforts in Iraq but urged him to clarify the nature and timing of the inquiry.
“With a good deal of public reflection around the fifth anniversary of the war, this strikes me as an appropriate context for Government to make a public statement about this,” he said.
Mr Blair had insisted a public inquiry was not justified as the background to the war had been examined four times — by the Hutton and Butler inquiries, by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee and by the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
He said during the 2005 general election campaign: “We have had inquiry after inquiry we do not need to go back over this again and again.”
But critics have argued that the terms of each of the inquiries were tightly drawn and failed to establish a full picture of the war and its aftermath.
The Conservatives, who backed the invasion, plan to force a Commons vote shortly in the hope of forcing an independent investigation by privy councillors into the origins and conduct of the war. William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show yesterday: “If we are not going to start it now, five years on from the beginning of the war, then when on earth would we have such an inquiry?”
Labour MPs who opposed the conflict had been hoping Mr Brown would use the anniversary to set up an inquiry. They argue that this would enable him to draw a line under what is widely seen as “Tony Blair’s war” and enable Labour to win back disaffected supporters.
Mr Powell told The Andrew Marr Show that the Blair government failed to prepare properly for the consequences of Saddam Hussein’s removal. He said: “The trouble with Iraq is we were kind of preparing for the wrong sort of aftermath. We made lots of preparations for humanitarian disaster, for the lack of water, of all that kind of thing, and what we hadn’t in my view, thought through, was the long-term nature of this.”
Mr Powell admitted: “We probably hadn’t thought through the magnitude of what we were taking on in Iraq, this is something that will take many decades to sort itself out.
“We were pushing [the Americans] to be prepared; we were pushing our own side to be prepared but I don’t think any of us really thought through this much bigger question of what we were dealing with.”
Four inquiries, but few answers
Foreign Affairs Select Committee
The first inquiry into intelligence used by the security services and claims that the Government knew it had been exaggerated. It grilled the weapons scientist David Kelly. It cleared Tony Blair’s aide Alastair Campbell, right, of the charge of “sexing up” the dossier on weapons of mass destruction.
Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee
It investigated the intelligence that went into the 2002 dossier that made the case for war, and exonerated Mr Campbell of the charge of sexing up the document, but concluded that the dossier was “unbalanced”, and failed to emphasise that Saddam Hussein was no threat to UK territory.
The Hutton inquiry
Lord Hutton was asked “urgently to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly”. During hearings over two months he ranged widely into the controversial 45-minute claim aired by the BBC and the way the September 2002 dossier that made the case for war was compiled. The judge cleared the Government of sexing up the dossier and was scathing about editorial practices at the BBC.
The Butler inquiry
The five-member committee headed by the former cabinet secretary Lord Butler of Brockwell was instructed in February 2004 to examine the intelligence on WMD used to justify the invasion. It accused MI6 of relying on third-hand reports and failing to check its sources thoroughly. It also criticised Downing Street’s informal “sofa-style” of government. Tony Blair said any mistakes were made in “good faith” and nobody had lied.