Page last updated at 20:45 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 21:45 UK

Chairman urges public Iraq probe

Iraqi boy and UK soldier in Basra, Iraq - 17/12/2008
Almost all of the UK's troops will leave Iraq by the end of July 2009

Chairman of the Iraq inquiry Sir John Chilcot has said it is "essential" as much as possible is held in public.

Gordon Brown had said the whole inquiry would be held in private for security reasons but then told Sir John he could decide to hold parts in public.

In his response, Sir John also says he will consult with opposition party leaders on the inquiry's format.

The plan to hold it in private had been criticised by campaigners, other parties and military figures.

The prime minister is due to face a Commons debate on Wednesday on a Conservative motion that evidence given to the Iraq inquiry should be heard in public "whenever possible".

'Complete candour'

In his letter, Sir John said, at Mr Brown's request, he would consult with opposition party leaders, senior MPs and the intelligence and security committee about the inquiry's format.

But he told Mr Brown: "More broadly, I believe it will be essential to hold as much of the proceedings of the inquiry as possible in public, consistent with the need to protect national security and to ensure and enable complete candour in the oral and written evidence from witnesses."

The prime minister has been executing a U-turn in slow motion ever since announcing the inquiry
William Hague

Sir John added that there was a need to give the families of those who died or were "seriously affected" by the war "an early opportunity to express their views about the nature and procedures of the inquiry, and to express them either in public or in private as they prefer".

In his reply Mr Brown told Sir John: "I believe your proposals will manage to meet both the need not to compromise national security but also enable the independent inquiry also to hold public sessions helping to build public confidence."

Among those who had criticised the decision to hold the inquiry in private were former PM Sir John Major and Lord Butler - the author of the last official report into the Iraq war.

Sir John had argued it would risk being denounced as a "whitewash" while Lord Butler told peers the government was acting in its "political interest than the national interest".

'Burden of proof'

Among others who said they thought it should be public were Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the Army during the 2003 invasion, and his successor - current Army head Sir Richard Dannatt.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said it was "a climb down of massive proportions" by Mr Brown.

"The prime minister has been executing a U-turn in slow motion ever since announcing the inquiry. Characteristically he could not bring himself to confirm this in Parliament but has passed the buck to Sir John Chilcot," he said.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said: "We need an independent process to decide exactly what evidence is heard in private. This decision should not be down to the whims of prime ministers past and present."

"The burden of proof must be on the government to demonstrate a clear impact on national security of specific evidence before any session can be held in private."

Mr Brown then said Sir John could decide if some sessions should be held in public and Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary in 2003, has said that he has "no problem" with giving evidence to the inquiry in public.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls also said earlier that hearing some evidence in public would be a "good thing".

Downing Street and Tony Blair's spokesman have dismissed reports that the decision to hold the inquiry in private was prompted by pressure from the ex-prime minister.

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