UK Politics

Iraq inquiry: Focus on secret papers as Chilcot returns

Sir John Chilcot
Image caption Will Sir John Chilcot take his inquiry panel to Iraq?

Downing Street has a new resident at Number 10. Summer tourists meander through the streets of Westminster, seeking respite from the stifling heat. One of Britain's coldest winters in 100 years is a distant memory.

But inside the air conditioned rooms of the QE2 Conference Centre, across the road from Houses of Parliament, it is as though nothing has changed in the four months since the then prime minister, Gordon Brown. gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry.

This inquiry has cost £2.2m to date, but it still has a fair way to run.

So the chairman, Sir John Chilcot, and his committee have picked up where they left off.

Re-opening proceedings on Tuesday, Sir John first outlined what has been going on since the adjournment in March.

A short visit to France, a rather longer one to the United States, and private hearings with British officials to take evidence on issues such as intelligence. The identities of these individuals will be published in the next week or so.

Another Blair day?

The chronology of events in Iraq from 2001 to 2009 has now been recorded.

We have heard the narrative from more than 80 witnesses -- politicians, diplomats, the military and from an array of Whitehall civil servants.

But there are still gaps to be filled in.

Image caption Will the former prime minister be recalled to give evidence?

Some specific issues, such as policing in post-war Iraq, have received scant attention until now.

The inquiry may also recall witnesses if necessary, raising the spectre of another "Tony Blair day".

On more than one occasion, Sir John Chilcot has also signalled that his committee would like to visit Iraq.

The start of the week brought the former Assistant Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, Douglas Brand, to the witness stand.

Declassified papers

He was sent to Baghdad after the invasion in 2003 to help recruit and train a new Iraqi police force.

He made no secret of the many difficulties he faced amid the chaos of the "De-Baathification" period, but he told the inquiry that the history of British involvement in the country had been an asset.

"One of the things that a lot of the police officers were very complimentary of was the police training that their grandfathers had had from the British in the 1920s.....and - I make no apologies for it - I actually used that as a way of getting into the Iraqi communities by finding people whose fathers or grandfathers had been in the British-led police, because there was a point of contact", Brand said.

However, the main talking point of the week was not in the hearing room of the QE2 Centre, but around the release of declassified government papers.

The Cabinet Office published 27 pages of documents that shed further light on the draft legal advice given by the former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.

Both he and Sir John Chilcot had previously expressed frustration that the papers had remained classified when Lord Goldsmith gave evidence to the inquiry in January.

Legal advice

The manner in which Lord Goldsmith's view on the legality of military action against Iraq evolved in 2002/03, emerged clearly from his verbal testimony.

Image caption Lord Goldsmith's advice changed in the run up to the invasion

But the newly-released documents reinforce the point that his opinion did change in the months before the invasion.

In a memo to Tony Blair on 30 January, 2003, Lord Goldsmith wrote: "I remain of the view that the correct legal interpretation of resolution 1441 is that it does not authorise the use of military force without a further determination by the Security Council".

By March 2003 however, Lord Goldsmith had come to the conclusion that another UN resolution was not needed.

A scribbled note in the margin, alongside the paragraph in which his January 30 comment appears, reads: "I just don't understand this". It is not clear whose handwriting this is.

Another confidential letter was declassified on Friday.

'Exceptional case'

It showed that on the eve of the war in March 2003, Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon wrote to Tony Blair saying that British force levels in Iraq would have to be cut by two-thirds by no later than the autumn of 2003.

In the event, the UK military strength in Iraq was reduced from 46,000 to 10,000 by October that year.

The letter shed some light on a complex evidence session on Friday in which Ministry of Defence officials were giving details of financial management and planning.

They were adamant that in spite of budgetary pressures, military operations between 2003 and 2009 were never constrained by financial considerations.

More documents may be declassified in the coming weeks, although the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, was at pains to stress this week that the publication of legal advice in this instance had been "an exceptional case".

Back in the public limelight, Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues at the Iraq inquiry will nonetheless feel this has been a good week.

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