updated 11/23/2009 2:47:53 PM ET 2009-11-23T19:47:53

A panel investigating Britain's role in the Iraq war begins questioning witnesses this week in an inquiry that critics hope will humble former Prime Minister Tony Blair and expose alleged deception in the buildup to conflict.

The investigation is the most sweeping probe yet into the war by any nation that was involved.

It is expected to consider allegations Blair secretly backed President George W. Bush plan's for invasion a year before Parliament authorized military involvement in 2003.

The panel, which opens public hearings Tuesday, will question dozens of officials over several months — including Blair, military officials and spy agency chiefs. It will also seek evidence from ex-White House staff.

Bereaved families and anti-war activists have long called for a comprehensive study to consider Britain's role in a conflict that left 179 British soldiers dead and triggered massive public protests.

Lingering doubts
But some worry the hearings will do little to answer lingering doubts about Britain's rush to join the war. Led by a panel appointed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the inquiry won't apportion blame, or establish criminal or civil liability — only offer reprimand and recommendations in hopes mistakes won't be repeated in the future.

"I don't think it will satisfy people who are hoping to hang, draw and quarter Tony Blair, or refer him to the International Court — that's not going to happen," said Clare Short, an ex-Cabinet minister who quit in protest two months after the invasion. She will also be testifying before the inquiry.

In the United States, the 9/11 Commission examined some issues around prewar intelligence, and a Senate select committee identified failures in intelligence gathering in a July 2004 report on prewar intelligence assessments.

Brown set up the inquiry to address public criticism of three key aspects of the conflict: the case made for war; the chaotic planning for the invasion; and the failure to prepare for reconstruction.

Leaked military documents published Sunday disclosed that senior British military officers claim war plans were in place months before the March 2003 invasion, but were so badly drafted they left troops poorly equipped and ill-prepared.

Bereaved parents to attend
Some relatives of dead soldiers demanded the chance to question Blair when he gives evidence to the panel — an idea rejected by the inquiry.

"He has got to face us, and tell us why we went to war, and when exactly that decision was made," said Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in Iraq in 2004. She said many bereaved parents will attend Blair's sessions.

Retired civil servant John Chilcot heads the panel of five officials — who include Winston Churchill's biographer and an ex-British ambassador to Russia. Chilcot has acknowledged the study may not satisfy those who insist the war was unjustified and illegal.

The panel's conclusions may not be "definitive in the sense of a court verdict of legal or illegal," Chilcot said. "It is much closer to high policy decisions — was this a wise decision, was it well-taken, was it founded on good advice and good information and analysis?"

Four government officials — including Michael Wood, an ex-legal adviser to Britain's Foreign Office, and Simon Webb, a former defense ministry policy director — will testify Tuesday.

Two previous studies into specific aspects of the conflict have been criticized as too timid.

One cleared the government of blame for the death of David Kelly, a government weapons scientist who killed himself in 2003 after he was exposed as the source of a British Broadcasting Corp. report that accused Blair's office of "sexing up" prewar intelligence.

A separate 2004 inquiry looked at intelligence on Iraq, clearing Blair's government but criticizing intelligence officials for relying on seriously flawed or unreliable sources.

Chris Ames, an investigator who campaigned for an inquiry, said it likely represents a final opportunity to scrutinize the war.

"This our last chance to get to the truth. People will want witnesses to drop the spin and be honest," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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