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U.K. Opposition Cries Foul Over Iraq War Inquiry

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (left) and his Iraqi counterpart Nuri al-Maliki sign a bilateral "Joint Declaration of Friendship, Partnership, and Cooperation" in London on April 30.
(RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced an independent inquiry into Britain's controversial involvement in the Iraq war and its aftermath, and that the panel will examine in full the mistakes made in the course of Britain's six-year presence in Iraq.

But opposition leaders immediately accused the government of a cover-up, in that the inquiry's hearings will be closed to the public.

The leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, said he is "staggered" that the inquiry will take place behind closed doors. He said that "everyone knows" the invasion of Iraq was "the biggest foreign-policy mistake" that Britain has made in generations.

Conservative opposition leader David Cameron took the same line, saying that if mistakes were made, the country needs to know why.

Brown justified the restriction on national security grounds. But he pledged that the inquiry, expected to last a year, will be "unprecedented" in its thoroughness. And he said its findings will be published fully where this is compatible with national security.

He said it will examine the complex and often controversial events in the lead-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, through the war and in the postwar period.

As Washington's closest ally, Britain sent 45,000 troops to join the invasion to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on the grounds he was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

The British government, led at the time by Brown's predecessor Tony Blair, made the unfounded claim before the war that Iraq had such weapons that could be launched against Britain within 45 minutes.

In the event, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq.

'Necessary Procedure'

"The inquiry is essential so that by learning lessons we will strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy, and our military," Brown said in his June 15 announcement. "The inquiry will be, I stress, fully independent of government, [and] the scope of the inquiry will be unprecedented."

He said no document or person will be beyond the reach of the panel. But at the same time, he said the panel will not seek to consider issues of civil or criminal liability for the war.

This appears to rule out any move to make Blair or his ministers answer for their actions as enthusiastic backers of the invasion, despite the deep unpopularity of the war among the British public.

And Brown emphasized that the final conclusions of the inquiry will be made available to the public in as full a form as possible, except where kept confidential on grounds of national security.

"The committee will publish its findings in the fullest form possible, these findings will then be debated in the House of Commons and the House of Lords; it is from these debates, as well as from the report itself, that we can draw fully on the lessons of Iraq," Brown said.

The opposition has accused the Labour government of playing politics with the report, in that it will not be published before the next national election, which must be held by June 2010.

with news agency material