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House of Commons plans inquiry into Iraq war
LONDON -- A parliamentary committee announced Tuesday it would hold an inquiry into the government's decision to go to war with Iraq, as pressure mounted on Prime Minister Tony Blair to explain claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The existence of such weapons was Blair's main argument for joining the United States in military action. Yet British and U.S. forces in Iraq have so far failed to locate chemical, biological or nuclear arms or programs to develop them.
The House of Commons Foreign Relations Committee is likely to hold its investigation in public, and its reports are usually published.
The inquiry will consider whether the Foreign Office, "within the government as a whole, presented accurate and complete information to Parliament in the period leading up to military action in Iraq, particularly in relation to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," the committee announced.
Controversy has focused on a government dossier, published in September, outlining evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and plans to deploy them on 45 minutes' notice.
Blair's office has resisted the idea of a broad independent report, suggesting it would favor an inquiry by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. But that committee reports to the prime minister, not to Parliament, and some lawmakers had pressed for a more open investigation.
Either option would fall short of the full independent probe some are seeking. But although the Foreign Affairs Committee is dominated by Blair's Labor Party, it has shown independence in past reports critical of the government.
The committee said it plans to take oral statements from witnesses in June and publish a report in July.
No witness list has yet been drawn up, but Donald Anderson, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the committee may call Blair, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and serving intelligence officers to give evidence.
"All options are open. We would aim to get as wide a range of witnesses as possible," he said. "The obvious concern we would be addressing is the quality of intelligence material and the use of that material."
More than 50 Labor lawmakers have signed a Commons motion drafted by Peter Kilfoyle, a former Labor defense minister, calling on the government to publish the evidence behind the dossier.
The Liberal Democrats, the third-largest party in Parliament, have called for a public inquiry. The main opposition Conservative Party has not endorsed an inquiry, but has urged Blair to publish any additional evidence to support the claims made before the war.
"Here is probably the biggest issue for almost a generation where Parliament must be seen to be asserting itself," Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy told the British Broadcasting Corp.
John Denham, who resigned as a minister at the Home Office because of the war, suggested a wide-ranging inquiry similar to one conducted after the Falklands war in 1982. He said it should examine issues of "intelligence, weapons of mass destruction and the diplomatic moves and failures that led to war itself."
Kenneth Clarke, a senior Conservative lawmaker who opposed military action in Iraq, said Parliament should debate the issues, which he saw as broader than the use or misuse of intelligence.
"The big issue is when did we decide to go to war?" Clarke told the BBC. "Did we support the Americans on the basis that they were going in for regime change? ... And was Parliament given a genuine reason when we were all told about the imminent threat from these weapons of mass destruction?"
Criticism of Blair came as two U.S. Senate committees pushed for an investigation into whether U.S. intelligence accurately pointed to banned weapons in Iraq as claimed by the Bush administration.