Britain has opened a long awaited, wide-ranging inquiry into the government's involvement in the Iraq war, vowing to be thorough and fair and not shy away from criticizing individuals or institutions if warranted.
The government appointed five-member panel began its first public hearings in London in an inquiry expected to last until the end of 2010 and possibly beyond. Its mission is to examine Britain's role in the run-up to the start of the Iraq war in 2003 through the conflict and its aftermath.
Inquiry chairman, John Chilcot opened the hearings with a moment of silence for those who died in the conflict.
He then said the panel would examine documents, hear testimony and try to evaluate what happened, what went well, what went wrong and why.
Chilcot sought to counter criticism that his committee might be biased and its report would be a whitewash.
"We are apolitical, we are independent of any political party and we want to examine and rely on the evidence. We will approach our task in a way that is thorough, rigorous, fair and frank," he said.
Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent over 45,000 troops to Iraq in 2003 to help topple Saddam Hussein. 179 British military personnel were killed in the conflict. Britain's involvement in the war was deeply unpopular at home and there were allegations the government had distorted intelligence to justify the war.
There have been two previous investigations into British involvement, but more limited in scope. One 2004 inquiry into the intelligence used to justify the war cleared government ministers of wrongdoing, but criticized the intelligence used.
The Chilcot inquiry will examine reams of documents, call witnesses for public and private testimony, including military, government and intelligence officials. It is expected to also seek evidence from former US White House officials.
Chilcot promised a thorough inquiry but said there were limits since the panel is not a court of law.
"No one's on trial here, we cannot determine guilt or innocence - only courts can do that. But, I make a commitment here that once we get to our final report, we will not shy away from making criticisms either of institutions, or processes or individuals wherever they are truly warranted," he added.
Among those due to appear before the inquiry panel is former Prime Minister Blair. The inquiry is expected to publish a report of its findings by the end of 2010, or possibly even in 2011.
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