Former British FM Straw closes Iraq inquiry hearings

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Former foreign minister Jack Straw gave evidence Wednesday on the final day of public hearings in Britain's Iraq inquiry, insisting that regime change had never been London's priority.

Since hearings began in central London in November 2009, the panel has heard from more than 120 witnesses in public including former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

A cast of diplomats, spy chiefs, spin doctors and senior ministers have all testified to the inquiry into the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, reviving passions over what was a deeply unpopular conflict in Britain.

Giving evidence to the inquiry for the third time, Straw, who was foreign minister when Britain joined the invasion, insisted that containment of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been the British government's priority.

"Containment remained the overall strategy of the government right up to the time when we took the decision to use military action," he told the inquiry.

"Regime change was never an objective of the British government," Straw added.

At previous hearings, Straw said that his decision to support the war had been the most "difficult decision" of his career, and had been taken "very reluctantly."

The former minister also told the inquiry that he ignored the views of many senior Foreign Office lawyers, who told him the war was illegal, and followed the advice of the government's then chief legal advisor, Peter Goldsmith.

Straw is among a small number of witnesses -- including Blair -- who have been recalled to clarify earlier evidence.

Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007, has been the star witness at the inquiry. He drew criticism at his first hearing in January last year when he said he had "no regret" about removing Saddam.

In his second appearance last month, the former prime minister addressed the condemnation he had faced following his first hearing, saying he did regret the loss of life in the conflict.

Blair, now Middle East peace envoy, also warned the world would have to use force to curb Iran's nuclear drive.

"This is a looming and coming challenge," he said. "At some point, we've got to get our head out of the sand.

The inquiry had originally hoped to publish its final report around the start of the year. But inquiry chair John Chilcot has warned "it will take time" to complete.

The inquiry, aimed at learning lessons from the Iraq war, was launched after the withdrawal of British troops from the country in July 2009.

Its members have visited Iraq, the United States and France as part of their probe and have met with the families of British troops killed in Iraq.

The inquiry has also held a series of closed sessions -- including some with witnesses who also gave evidence in public -- where sensitive issues relating to national security have been discussed.

The evidence touched on issues including evidence on supposed weapons of mass destruction, the supply of military equipment and Iraq's descent into chaos following the invasion.

© 2011 AFP

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