Page last updated at 13:06 GMT, Thursday, 30 July 2009 14:06 UK

Will Iraq probe worry ministers?

By Reeta Chakrabarti
Political correspondent, BBC News

Anyone hoping for a detailed summary of whom the Iraq inquiry will call, and what exactly it will examine will have been left disappointed.

The inquiry launch was a more broad-brush affair, dealing in tone, approach and timeframe, rather than specific terms of reference. The inquiry will start its work now, but there was no concrete start date.

Sir John Chilcot at the launch of his inquiry
Sir John Chilcot at the launch of his inquiry

"Late autumn" for witnesses was the nearest we came.

To be fair to Sir John Chilcot and his team, Gordon Brown has instructed them to look at the period from the summer of 2001, before 9/11, up to the present day.

It will be up to Sir John to decide what within that he will examine. He and his team are busy reading widely we are told, and to a certain extent will go where their reading takes them.

We did get confirmation of certain facts - that Sir John does intend to call Tony Blair, that the legality of the war will be central to their inquiry, and that he and his team will want to see Cabinet minutes from the time.

And for those who might view Sir John - a former civil servant, and a member of the Butler inquiry which looked at weapons of mass destruction - as an establishment figure unlikely to rock the boat, he was at pains to say his committee came to the job with open minds, and that they would not shy away from making criticisms.

Sleepless nights

But - although he hasn't ruled out producing an interim report, he thought a full report wouldn't be produced until late 2010 or beyond - that is, well after the next general election.

For those who want to know how government decisions to go to war were reached before they cast their vote, this will be seen as foot-dragging at best.

There have been four inquiries into Iraq already - and memoirs from key players that have helped add to the picture. Iraq is a subject on which many people have probably made up their minds. What then can Sir John add?

Anti-war protesters in London
More than a million people demonstrated against the war in 2003

Part of his task will be to see if he can come up with a process which will address once and for all the nagging doubts that exist for many - about the basis for the war, its legality, and when exactly the then prime minister decided to go to war.

Sir John will have access to all British documents - and can call on any British citizen to give evidence. But he can't compel them to - and neither does he have any power of compulsion beyond these shores, in the US for example.

There were three main criticisms of the inquiry when it was first announced by Gordon Brown: that it would be held in private, that no blame would be apportioned, and that it wouldn't report until after the general election.

Sir John has shown a degree of independence in insisting much of it will be held in public. He says too that his team will not shy away from making criticisms. It is clear, however, that he won't report until after the election.

But the government still faces having its former prime minister and other key players called to account in the run-up to an election. The prospect of that alone will be causing sleepless nights for some.

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