- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

LONDON | An inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war kicked off Tuesday with top government advisers testifying that some Bush administration officials were calling for Saddam Hussein’s ouster as early as 2001 — long before sanctions were exhausted and two years before the U.S.-led invasion.

Critics hope the hearings, which will call former Prime Minister Tony Blair and are billed as the most sweeping inquiry into the conflict, will expose purported deception in the buildup to fighting. However, they won’t establish criminal or civil liability.

As the inquiry began, a small group of anti-war protesters gathered near Parliament. Three wore face masks of George W. Bush, Mr. Blair and Prime Minister Gordon Brown — their hands and faces covered in fake blood.

“Five years we’ve waited for this, and finally we’re getting somewhere,” said Pauline Graham, 70, who traveled from the Scottish city of Glasgow to see the hearings. Her grandson Gordon Gentle, 19, was killed in the southern Iraqi city of Basra in 2004.

Peter Ricketts, who was chairman of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee in 2001, said Britain had hoped for a strengthened policy of containment — reducing the threat posed by Iraq through sanctions, weapons inspections and security measures. The strategy had been in place since the 1991 Persian Gulf war when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait.

But Mr. Ricketts said some in the Bush administration had a different vision.

“We were conscious that there were other voices in Washington, some of whom were talking about regime change,” Mr. Ricketts said, citing an article written by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warning that nothing would change in Iraq until Saddam was gone.

The panel will question dozens of officials over the next year — including military officials and spy agency chiefs. It will also seek evidence but not testimony from ex-White House staff members.

Bereaved families and activists have long called for an inquiry into the U.S.-led war that left 179 British soldiers dead and triggered massive public protests. The Labor-led government lost a significant share of parliamentary seats because of the war.

But with no lawyers on the panel, few believe the inquiry will answer one of the most basic questions — whether the war was legal.

Led by a panel appointed by Mr. Brown, the inquiry can only offer reprimand and recommendations in hope mistakes won’t be repeated in the future.

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.

But the Iraq inquiry in Britain is envisioned as a comprehensive look at the war. Mr. Brown set up the inquiry to address public criticism of three key aspects of the conflict: the case made for war; the planning for the invasion; and the failure to prepare for reconstruction.

Any significant findings could pose embarrassing questions for the government ahead of a general election next year. Both the Labor Party and the opposition Conservatives voted for the invasion.

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