Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

Chilcot's Iraq war inquiry off to promising start

By Peter Biles
BBC world affairs correspondent

Sir John Chilcot
Sir John Chilcot and his team have started as they mean to continue

The sceptics might say the Iraq inquiry, chaired by Sir John Chilcot, is another pointless investigation, a colossal waste of time, and likely to be a whitewash.

But in the first week, some fascinating evidence has already emerged from these public hearings into the background to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It is perhaps too early to say if it will be a definitive account of the war. But for those predicting some sort of cover-up, the initial signs suggest otherwise.

Given the controversy over the Iraq war in 2003, and the confusion at the time, it is good to be able to join up a few dots in what is still an otherwise incomplete picture.

Relatives of Britons killed in Iraq have long made it known they are seeking "truth and honesty".

Six years on, some are still filled with the pain of loss and the anger fuelled by what they regard as "an illegal war".

Intelligence shortcomings

Some of them were here on Tuesday, as the inquiry opened. Members of the public queued from 0630 to secure seats in the hearing room, and journalists haggled for the few places left available to them.

On Wednesday, however, the public gallery was largely empty. Perhaps people were deterred by Sir John Chilcot's early warning that the session on weapons of mass destruction was going to be "detailed and technical".

In the event, the evidence presented by two Foreign Office officials, Sir William Ehrman and Tim Dowse, revealed the extent of the intelligence shortcomings in the build-up to war.

On Thursday, Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador in Washington in the run-up to the invasion, took on the role of crowd pleaser, albeit without much of an audience.

Sir Christopher delivered a spellbinding and colourful account of what happened in the US capital from the time the Bush administration took office in 2001 until the start of the Iraq war in 2003.

Required reading

A book launch this was not, but Sir Christopher ensured that his recently published memoirs received extensive promotion during nearly three hours on the witness stand.

He was helped by his inquisitors on the inquiry committee, who had clearly treated his book as required reading.

Sir Christopher shed new light on the "special relationship" between Britain and America.

He recalled suffering "massive anxiety" in 2001, faced with the prospect that Tony Blair would not hit it off with the newly elected George W Bush, in the same way that Mr Blair had bonded with Bill Clinton.

But he admitted he was to be proved wrong. He recalled that at a lunch at Camp David in February 2001, first names immediately became the order of the day.

"You sort of sensed, and the sense developed that, whatever happened in policy terms, whatever substantive issues arose to challenge, these two men were going to get on, and that was exactly what happened," said Sir Christopher.

Full story

Another big hitter gave evidence as the week drew to a close. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's former ambassador to the United Nations, is the ultimate senior diplomat.

He was forensic in his approach, and the history of UN sanctions on Iraq is etched on his memory.

He gave the impression that his job in New York had, at times, been a lonely and deeply frustrating diplomatic experience, faced with what were called the "noises off" - the United States' preparation for war with Iraq, regardless of what Britain was trying to achieve through diplomatic channels at the UN.

The tone set by the five-member inquiry committee has been courteous, not adversarial.

They have probed gently, rather than interrogated. But Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues know their reputations are on the line. They've started as they mean to go on - searching for the full story.

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