24 Nov 2009

Iraq inquiry: as it starts, what can we expect?

For a war that seared onto our TV screens via the US military doctrine of “shock and awe” the UK’s official inquiry into the Iraq conflict just started with a distinctly English sang froid.

First things first – another inquiry? You could be forgiven a tinge of déjà vu, but the two best-known investigations that have already taken place were very specific in their remit: Lord Hutton’s report in January 2004 focused on the death of the Government scientist Dr David Kelly, and Lord Butler’s later that year on how and why “intelligence” on Iraq’s alleged WMD programme was so badly misinterpreted.

Additional inquiries by Parliamentary committees were equally limited in the tasks they set themselves None of these could exactly be described as uncontroversial, but this inquiry promises at least to be far broader and to dig far deeper.

Here in what one weekend commentator not unfairly described as the bland surroundings of the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster ministers, soldiers, civil servants, journalists and a five-strong committee of the great and good will spend at least the next six months considering three questions; how the UK entered the Iraq conflict in the first place, how the war was fought and what happened in its aftermath.

However far Iraq creeps back in newspaper pages and down TV news running orders the numbers remain truly staggering; countless Iraqis suffering violent deaths (and countless isn’t glib; different organisations’ estimates vary from the high tens of thousands to as many as half a million “excess” fatalities), almost four and a half thousand American and 179 British Armed Forces or MoD civilians killed, a total UK cost according to some media reports of as much as £8.4bn.

And smaller numbers that matter just as much: for instance the 52 dead in the July 7 attacks of 2005, which some analysts believe the war played a key role in inspiring.

Statistics worth bearing in mind over the weeks and months to come if ever the day-to-day proceedings begin to feel staid.

Coverage of the chairman’s opening statement and evidence from the first witnesses throughout the day.