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British PM to appear at Iraq probe before poll

Prime Minister Gordon Brown will appear at Britain's Iraq war inquiry before this year's general election, its chairman said Friday, forcing the divisive conflict right up the campaign agenda.

world Updated: Jan 22, 2010 19:18 IST

Prime Minister Gordon Brown will appear at Britain's Iraq war inquiry before this year's general election, its chairman said Friday, forcing the divisive conflict right up the campaign agenda.

Brown was initially told by the Chilcot inquiry he could not give evidence before voters go to the polls, expected to be on May 6, to keep party politics out of it.

That has changed after Brown faced intense pressure to reveal whether his spending decisions as finance minister in Tony Blair's Labour government before the 2003 invasion affected the military's strength.

His inquiry appearance -- plus Blair's, due next Friday -- risks reviving memories of a deeply divisive war which Britain was led into by a Labour government.

Chairman John Chilcot told the inquiry that, after receiving a letter from Brown, he had decided to give him the chance to appear ahead of the election "as a matter of fairness... if he wished to take it up".

"The prime minister replied to me this morning to say that he will be happy to agree dates from a range we have proposed over the next two months," he added.

Chilcot also voiced concern about the "mounting risk" of his probe being hijacked for political ends in a separate letter to Brown dated Thursday and released by the inquiry.

In response, the prime minister wrote: "I offered to give my evidence at any time. You have proposed a range of dates in the next two months.

"I will be happy to agree a date that is to the convenience of the inquiry."

Although the Conservatives also backed the conflict, Brown could face attacks after ex-defence secretary Geoff Hoon accused him of depriving the armed forces of funds in the run-up to the invasion during his evidence to the probe Tuesday.

Blair's former communications chief Alastair Campbell told the probe last week that Brown was one of the "key ministers" his boss consulted in the run-up to war.

Brown could be questioned in late February or early March, just weeks away from the election. The poll must be held by June and although no date has officially been confirmed, all indications point to May 6.

He has previously insisted he has "nothing to hide" on Iraq.

Conservative foreign affairs spokesman William Hague praised the decision to call Brown to give evidence.

"The inquiry and the British public need to hear the full facts from everyone involved and as (finance minister) at the time he clearly has questions to answer," he said.

Commentators said the appearance could prove tricky for Brown and Labour in the run-up to the election.

"On the one hand, this could damage Brown, reminding voters that this was a 'Labour war'," wrote James Macintyre of the centre-left New Statesman magazine Friday.

"On the other hand, Brown strategists believe... this could be a chance for Brown to level with the British people and even thrive under pressure."

Current Foreign Secretary David Miliband and International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander are also being given the opportunity to give evidence before the election. Miliband has indicated he would be willing to.

The Chilcot inquiry was announced by Brown in June, honouring a pledge that the run-up to and conduct of the conflict would be examined once British troops withdrew from Iraq.

Brown's predecessor Blair faced intense public hostility after backing then US president George W. Bush in the war, during which 179 British soldiers died.

His popularity plummeted and he stepped down in 2007 after ten years in office, handing over to Brown.

Major demonstrations are expected in London when Blair appears before the probe.

The Chilcot inquiry has heard that part of Blair's argument for war was that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed within 45 minutes, but these were never found.