UK's Iraq inquiry turns focus to Bush officials

The Associated Press
Monday, February 8, 2010; 4:18 PM

LONDON -- Britain's inquiry into the Iraq war will seek meetings with former members of the Bush administration after taking evidence from Tony Blair and other key British officials, the panel's chairman said Monday.

John Chilcot, head of the inquiry, confirmed that he hopes to obtain evidence from officials in the United States, but did not name specific individuals, or specify if his panel hopes to put questions to former President George W. Bush himself.

"We cannot take formal evidence as such from foreign nationals, but we can of course have discussions with them," Chilcot said, bringing to a close the inquiry's first set of public evidence sessions.

The hearings began in November and have seen Blair, current MI6 intelligence agency chief John Sawers, the head of Britain's military Jock Stirrup and a host of ministers and government officials offer testimony.

Chilcot said his panel will question British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Development Secretary Douglas Alexander in a second set of hearings before summer, and also make plans to gather evidence from U.S. officials and military veterans.

"We will be holding a number of meetings and seminars with a range of individuals, British and non-British ... these could include veterans from the Iraq campaign and officials from the former American administration," Chilcot said.

Inquiry spokesman Rae Stewart said no decision had yet been made on who would be asked to meet with the inquiry panel, or when and where any sessions would take place.

David Sherzer, a spokesman for Bush, declined to comment when asked if any request had so far been made to the former president, or whether he would cooperate if asked.

Several sessions have focused on the accusations that Blair offered Bush support for an invasion as early as April 2002 - a year before legislators approved Britain's involvement.

Britain's former ambassador to the U.S., Christopher Meyer, told the inquiry that Bush and Blair used a meeting that April at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, to "sign in blood" an agreement to take military action in Iraq. However, in his testimony, Blair's former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, denied any agreement had been made and called Meyer's account unreliable.

Lawrence Freedman, a military historian who sits on the inquiry's five-member panel, indicated in questioning that Bush had advised Blair he planned to topple Saddam Hussein even if the despot cooperated with United Nations weapons inspectors.

"Can you start by confirming that you knew that military action was planned by the US for the middle of March, come what may?" Freedman asked ex-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in a hearing Monday. "You were copied in, presumably, to reports of conversations between the prime minister and the president?"

Details of private correspondence between Blair and Bush have been provided to the panel, but have not been released publicly.

Chilcot said his team had been granted access to tens of thousands of government documents, many highly classified. "They allow us to shine a bright light into seldom-seen corners of the government machine," he said.

Some lawmakers have demanded that letters between Blair and Bush should be made public, but the government has declined.

Brown ordered the inquiry to scrutinize the case made for war and errors in planning for post-conflict reconstruction. Chilcot's panel will offer recommendations by the end of the year, but won't apportion blame or but establish criminal or civil liability.