Iraq inquiry slams UK officials over secret memos

18th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

The head of Britain's Iraq war inquiry rebuked the government Tuesday for refusing to publish memos that Tony Blair wrote to George Bush ahead of the 2003 invasion, as public hearings resumed in London.

John Chilcot's criticism came just days before former British prime minister Blair was due to make his second appearance before the inquiry on Friday, following a highly charged session in January last year.

Opening a new round of hearings, Chilcot said the government had given the inquiry access to many documents for its probe of the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein and the events leading to Britain's military withdrawal in 2009.

But he was "disappointed" that top civil servant Gus O'Donnell had refused to let them make public notes between Blair and then-US president Bush "which illuminate prime minister Blair's positions at critical points".

At an inquiry hearing last year, Blair's ex-communications chief, Alastair Campbell, said the prime minister wrote notes to Bush throughout 2002 saying that Britain would "be there" for the United States in the event of war.

Campbell said the memos were "very frank" but kept "pretty private".

In a letter to O'Donnell this month, Chilcot argued that for the inquiry, "the question of when and how the prime minister made commitments to the US about the UK's involvement in military action in Iraq and subsequent decisions on the UK's continuing involvement is central to its considerations".

He also noted that some of the content had been revealed in memoirs written by Blair, Bush and Campbell.

But the civil servant denied his request for public disclosure, saying that revealing "privileged channels of communication" between a prime minister and a US president could harm Britain's international relations.

The hearings resumed after six months, during which Chilcot and the other four panel members visited Iraq and also took some private evidence, including from David Pepper, ex-head of GCHQ, Britain's signal intelligence agency.

Blair's re-appearance on Friday has been eagerly anticipated, particularly given the emergence Tuesday of new testimony from his one-time legal advisor.

Former attorney general Peter Goldsmith advised Blair in January 2003 -- two months before the invasion -- that the existing United Nations Security Council resolution was not enough to justify war.

But the following day, Blair told parliament there were "circumstances" in which a second resolution explicitly backing military action was not necessary.

Goldsmith gave evidence to the inquiry a year ago but in a fresh statement, written at the panel's request, he said Blair's words to lawmakers were not compatible with the advice he had given him.

"I was uncomfortable about them... My concern was that we should not box ourselves in by the public statements that were made, and create a situation which might then have to be unravelled," Goldsmith wrote.

Goldsmith eventually changed his mind about the legality of an invasion.

Anti-war campaigners are set to protest outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre venue when Blair appears on Friday.

In his memoirs, he said his first appearance, where he denied any regrets about removing Saddam, turned into "a trial of judgement and even good faith".

Asked about Goldsmith's new evidence, Blair's spokesman said it would be dealt with on Friday, adding: "The basis (for the invasion) was that given in the attorney general's advice, which he has confirmed in the statement."

He told the BBC: "What Peter Goldsmith's statement does is make it categorically clear that there was a proper legal basis for the military action taken."

© 2011 AFP

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