Iraq War Inquiry: opening ears, and voices

This article appeared in the Yorkshire Post
Let's open up Iraq War inquiry to all voices

19 June 2009
Should the Iraq War inquiry be accessible to the public? Every sinew of me says yes. As a minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office during this period. I read many, not all but many, of the relevant documents, and had endless conversations with other governments in the period running up to the conflict.
I am reasonably sure that there is no secret hidden away that will alter anyone's view of the conflict. Every government I spoke to before the outbreak of the conflict believed Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. They disagreed over the means to deal with him. But neither Jacques Chirac nor Gerhard Schroeder, nor the French or German intelligence agencies, questioned Saddam's desire to develop WMD. Those who believe it was wrong to take action to enforce UN resolutions and remove Saddam Hussein will rest convinced of their belief. Those who think it was right to remove a dictator and tyrant who had killed two million Muslims and gassed his own people, much as Britain took action against Slobadan Milosevic after his murderous assault of European Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, will be unlikely to change their minds. The deaths of Iraqis after the spring of 2003 are attributable to those forces – Jihadi Islamist extremists, Iran-backed Shia militants bent on killing Sunnis, other groups backed by al-Qaida and those private armies of killers abusing the religion of Islam who have been in place since the 1980s, financed by individuals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere as part of the global jihad against democracy. This inconvenient truth is ignored by those who want to blame the deaths in Iraq since 2003 on western democracies, just as they argue today that the Taliban killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan are the fault of President Obama and his decision to increase US military presence there. I am glad the inquiry will look into the military action against Iraq prior to 2003. Robin Cook, as Foreign Secretary, put together the coalition that started the bombing of Iraq in 1998 to stay Saddam's hand in killing Kurds. The issue is not about historical facts but about political judgement. For two years the Conservatives, in the person of William Hague, have been calling for an inquiry based on the Falklands War inquiry chaired by Lord Franks. This met, took evidence and deliberated in private. This week the Prime Minister granted William Hague his wish. Now the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are insisting that politicians should sit on the inquiry. I am not sure, in today's climate, that MPs should clamour to be on the commission. David Cameron and Nick Clegg may have their placemen in mind, just as I am sure Gordon Brown could find Labour MPs to balance them. But will a ding-dong between party politicians help? The other big question is whether those called to give evidence should do so in public and whether they should do so on oath. If the latter, witnesses can reasonably demand to be represented by lawyers as what should be a truth-seeking inquiry becomes more of a court or a tribunal sitting in judgement. If lawyers are involved, as in the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings, the process will take years. Saville is still sitting and costing millions in lawyers' fees. So for a full public inquiry taking evidence on oath from witnesses buttressed by lawyers opens a vista to a process that can take years and years. In addition, all the governments and foreign agencies whose papers can be revealed to a commission on inquiry which will not breach confidences would have a very different line if the most confidential communications were to be made public. It is not clear what the legal status is of diplomatic communications transmitted on the basis that they remain confidential. I am not sure any government in the world would talk to Britain in trust and in confidence on the basis that its communications were to be made public. So the call for a public inquiry actually vitiates the demands of those making the call. A full public inquiry would be a lawyers' dream and would not be allowed to disclose vital communications. That said, I hope the Iraq inquiry does agree to hold some sittings in public and interview key players, if they agree, in public. I welcome, therefore, Gordon Brown's move to change the terms of the inquiry so its members can determine which sessions are open and in public and which meetings take place in private to interview non-British players and to examine confidential material. And for every politician or civil servant questioned, I hope Iraqi civil society representatives are allowed to speak. They were ignored by democracy as they suffered under Saddam's tyranny. They have been ignored by many as they have fallen victim to the all-out assault on the elected Iraqi government by its state-sponsored and jihadist Islamist opponents. Let us hear from the people of Iraq as much as from our own politicians and officials.