Page last updated at 13:38 GMT, Friday, 8 January 2010

Iraq inquiry awaits 'big fish' Blair and Campbell

By Peter Biles
BBC world affairs correspondent

There was a sense of treading water this week as the Iraq inquiry picked up where it left off before Christmas.

Tony Blair
Seats for Mr Blair's appearance will be drawn in a ballot

Braving the adverse weather, more witnesses filed into the QEII Conference Centre in London to give evidence but, as in December, these were largely military and diplomatic figures who were not household names.

What everyone is waiting for now is the arrival of the big fish.

Tony Blair's former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, will lead the way next Tuesday, but it is the appearance of the former prime minister himself that will attract the most interest.

We now know that Mr Blair will give evidence sometime in the fortnight after 25 January. Officials of the Iraq inquiry have not yet revealed the precise date.

Seats for families

The announcement that a ballot will be held to allocate tickets has upset some of the families who lost loved ones in Iraq.

Many are determined to attend the Blair evidence sessions, but they cannot finalise their travel plans until an appearance date is confirmed and the outcome of the ballot is known.

They feel they should have been given greater priority. Only a third of the 60 seats in the hearing room will be reserved for the families.

This week, the narrative of what happened in Iraq from 2001 to 2009 moved into the period after Tony Blair left office in the summer of 2007.

Lt Gen Barney White-Spunner told the inquiry that the first days were an anxious time on the Iraqi side, but there was soon a change of fortune

Gordon Brown's foreign policy adviser Simon McDonald recalled how Mr Brown quickly began to absorb the detail of Iraq as he prepared to become prime minister.

"He approached it with great seriousness, with great method, but he had been, of course, a member of the cabinet that had decided to go in in the first place. So it wasn't fresh for him, but he was looking at it from a new office," Mr McDonald said.

One of the key events of 2008 was Operation Charge of the Knights, an Iraqi-led military operation to drive Shia militias out of Basra. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki caught everyone by surprise, including - it seems - his own forces, when he launched the operation earlier than expected in March 2008.

'Major success'

Lt Gen Barney White-Spunner, who was in command of Multi-National Division South East, told the inquiry that the first days were an anxious time on the Iraqi side, but there was soon a change of fortune.

"It was very interesting how quickly the Shia militias crumbled when the Iraqi people, the people in Basra, saw the operation was being led by their own army," he said. "It was rapidly clear this was going to be a major success".

The inquiry heard how Operation Charge of the Knights had involved "embedded MiTTs" - otherwise known as military transition teams.

William Patey
Former ambassador Sir William Patey: Original aims had been ambitious

These were coalition soldiers responsible for training and mentoring the burgeoning Iraqi army. A bemused Sir Roderic Lyne, one of the inquiry committee members, remarked : "Embedded mitting sounds awfully like what my wife does for Christmas for the grandchildren, but it is a term of art we are all learning."

Answering further questions about this watershed operation in Basra, Gen White-Spunner revealed that Britain had been forced to apply a brake on some Iraqi actions.

"We were asked at times in those very chaotic early days to do some things by the Iraqis, which, if we had agreed to, I would be sitting in front of a very different tribunal now.

"We were invited to drop aerial ordnance on areas which we considered not to have been thoroughly enough vetted and which could have caused considerable civilian casualties," he explained.

We now know that by 2009, countless lessons had been learned from the complex experiences in Baghdad and Basra. This, after all, was six years after the 2003 invasion.

Reflecting on his term in Baghdad, Britain's ambassador in 2005-06, Sir William Patey, stressed to the inquiry that the original objectives had been ambitious.

"If your ambition was to reconstruct a state - virtually from scratch - that had not had democracy for the past 30 years and had been led by a brutal dictator, that was not going to happen in two years."

The politicians who were the key decision makers will soon have the chance to tell their side of the Iraq story.

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