U.K. Begins Iraq War Inquiry

A long-awaited public inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war opened Tuesday with former civil servants questioned by a panel of investigators. But critics say the panel lacks the powers to get to the heart of the issues surrounding Britain's involvement in the war.

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In the first two years of the Iraq war, deep hostilities divided British and American commanders. That's according to documents leaked to a British newspaper. The documents from 2003 and 2004 feature comments from senior British officers complaining of American arrogance and a lack of information sharing. They will be presented to a public inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war. That inquiry began today.

NPR's Rob Gifford has the story.

ROB GIFFORD: The documents published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper are taken from official interviews conducted with returning British army commanders in 2003 and 2004. They make for extraordinary reading. The chief of staff to the top British commander in Iraq describes what he calls the arrogance of his U.S. military counterparts, saying they were like a group of Martians for whom dialogue was alien. The top British commander himself, Major General Andrew Stewart, tells how he spent a significant amount of his time evading and refusing orders from his U.S. superiors that he thought were counterproductive to the mission.

He complains, for instance, that when the Americans decided in March 2004 to arrest a key Shia leader, they didn't even tell the British, even though the move sparked an uprising throughout the British sector. All the papers leaked to the Daily Telegraph will be presented to the inquiry examining Britain's role in the Iraq war which began today. The first witnesses of the inquiry talked about the two-year spell leading up to the Iraq war. Sir William Patey is former head of the Middle East department of the British foreign office.

Mr. WILLIAM PATEY (Former Head, Middle East Department, British Foreign Office): On the 22nd of February, 2001, there was a policy brought, which our policy should be to keep a long way from the regime change end of the spectrum. So, in February 2001, we were aware of these drumbeats from Washington. And internally when we discussed it, our policy was to stay away from that end of the spectrum.

GIFFORD: The inquiry will question dozens of officials, military officers, spy agency chiefs and even former Prime Minister Tony Blair. It will also seek evidence, but not testimony from ex-White House staff. The head of the inquiry, former senior civil servant Sir John Chilcot has promised to be completely independent, but there are plenty of skeptics. Carne Ross is a former British diplomat at the United Nations who resigned in 2004 in protest against the war in Iraq.

Mr. CARNE ROSS (Former British Diplomat): I think many of the witnesses to the inquiry will have a vested interest in confirming the government narrative of what happened in the war because they themselves were deeply implicated in having carried it out.

GIFFORD: Some relatives of dead soldiers have demanded the chance to question Tony Blair themselves when he gives evidence to the panel early next year. But the inquiry has rejected their requests. Many relatives of the 179 British soldiers killed in Iraq blame the government for not equipping the military well enough. Elsie Manning's daughter, Sharon Elliott, was killed in Iraq in 2006. She says initially she supported the war, but now she says it was a badly planned mistake all along.

Ms. ELSIE MANNING: Why does England follow America? Why does America think they have to go into everybody's country and do what they are doing? Get our own country sorted out first. We send these kids out there, or Tony Blair has, without any forethought. There was nothing in place.

GIFFORD: The Chilcot inquiry is likely to last between 12 and 18 months.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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