December 19, 2008 – An inquiry into the invasion of Iraq will not start until at least late 2009, Gordon Brown told MPs yesterday.
In the wake of his announcement that Britain’s mission to Iraq will formally end next May, the Prime Minister is facing growing demands for a public inquiry into the war. Mr Brown said it would not be right to hold such a probe until the troops were home.
“I have always said this is a matter we will consider once our troops have come home,” he said. “We are not at that stage.”
Since Britain joined the US-led invasion in March 2003, 178 service personnel have died there. Troop numbers have been steadily reduced from a high of 46,000 to 4,000 today. There is speculation that many of the troops due home between May and July will be re-deployed to Afghanistan, where there are more than 7,000 UK troops.
Mr Brown also announced that a memorial wall in Basra for British service personnel would be transferred to the UK after the pullout was complete.
“We can be proud of the way that our forces carried out their mission in the most difficult times,” he said.
“As remembrance is vitally important, the Defence Secretary and I have decided after consultation that we shall bring that memorial wall, now standing in Basra, home to a fitting resting place of its own in our own country.
“We will do so when at the end of July the last of our combat troops leave Basra, a memorial now and forever to be in Britain.”
Ministers point out that several probes into the conflict have already taken place, including the Hutton report into the death of Dr David Kelly, and a 2003 inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee into the case for war.
But there has been no over-arching inquiry, and several questions remain unanswered.
A key issue for any new investigation will be whether it can call witnesses such as former PM Tony Blair, and whether it can force the publication of the Attorney-General’s controversial ruling that the war was legal.
The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru all back an early and wide-ranging inquiry, and arguments with Mr Brown are likely to centre on scope and timing, rather than the principle of an investigation.
Tory leader David Cameron said the Iraq mission had been “deficient” because it lacked “clear and specific objectives” and was not “properly resourced from the outset”.
He said: “With the need to learn all these lessons in mind, why not announce a full-scale, independent inquiry?”
Mr Brown said it was “not right to open the question” of an inquiry now, and stressed that the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan were not “exactly parallel”.
The Prime Minister said commanders on the ground would decide when operational missions were complete, but the latest date was May 31 next year.
“At that point we will begin a rapid withdrawal of our troops, taking the total from just under 4,100 to under 400 by July 31,” he said. “The majority of those will be dedicated to naval training.”
Iraq had endured “dark days” over the past five-and-a-half years, but it had also made “very significant progress”, he said.
Ann Clwyd, the Labour MP for Cynon Valley, said: “I am very proud that this country helped to free Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Anyone who has followed the history of Iraq will know that we did the right thing at that particular time.
“I am glad that the Prime Minister has reaffirmed that the withdrawal of our military efforts does not mean an end to our commitment to the people of Iraq, and that they will continue to benefit from our ongoing support.”
But in the Commons Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price challenged Mr Brown directly, asking: “Given the huge scale of the human cost, the hundreds and thousands of lives lost – Iraqi, British and American – can you, in all conscience, say that this was a price worth paying?”
Mr Brown said: “Making decisions about war are very difficult indeed. But this House considered all the factors involved and made its decision and then implemented that decision.”
Labour MP Don Touhig said there should be an official day for people to “demonstrate publicly their admiration for the brave men and women of our armed forces”.