Page last updated at 17:04 GMT, Thursday, 17 December 2009

Tony Blair to give Iraq Inquiry testimony 'in public'

Blair Iraq inquiry evidence 'will be public'

The chairman of the Iraq Inquiry has insisted Tony Blair will give evidence in public, while rejecting claims the panel is being too secretive.

Sir John Chilcot said his team had not been "trying to ambush witnesses or score points", but denied they had not been tough enough on witnesses so far.

Mr Blair is due to appear before the inquiry in the New Year.

In his statement, Sir John also said hearings would not take place during next year's general election campaign.

"We are determined to remain firmly outside party politics," he said.

"We have informed members of Parliament that we are ready to meet them if they want an explanation of our working methods, but the inquiry should not be used as a platform for political advantage."

'Absolutely clear'

Sir John made his remarks before suspending public hearings of the inquiry for Christmas.

Earlier this week, the live video feed of a witness's testimony was halted for just over a minute for reasons of national security, prompting some accusations of secrecy.

But Sir John said there was "an exceptional level of openness", which had led to a huge amount of "valuable and illuminating evidence" being gleaned already.

Peter Biles
BBC World Affairs correspondent Peter Biles
Over the past four weeks, there have been some suggestions that the mood inside the inquiry room is too cosy. The Liberal Democrats have likened it to "a gentlemen's club".

But in his statement today, Sir John sought to justify the committee's methodical approach, insisting: "We are not here to provide public sport or entertainment."

So a picture of what happened in Iraq between 2001 and 2009 is slowly being built up, piece by piece. We now know that the inquiry has not yet asked the government to declassify documents to allow them to be published. This will be done as ministers and other senior figures are called to give evidence in the new year.

When the public hearings resume in January, all eyes will be on Tony Blair and his justification for taking Britain to war.

"My colleagues and I remain committed to hearing as much of the evidence in public as possible," he continued.

"Evidence will only be heard in private in the narrow circumstances we have set out in the protocols on our website.

"But I would like to be absolutely clear about this - evidence sessions with key decision-makers, including the former prime minister, will be in public.

"They will be openly questioned about the big issues that they were involved in."

The probe has heard from 38 witnesses to date, including civil servants and senior military figures involved in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Sir John said: "This is a serious inquiry and we are not here to provide public sport or entertainment.

"We've been asking fair questions, and been expecting and getting full and truthful answers.

"That is the essence of a formal public inquiry and witnesses have responded to this approach by being commendably open and candid."

He added that he expected to begin seeking the declassification of relevant documents concerning the war early in the new year.

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