UK Iraq war inquiry 'unblocked' after deal on Blair/Bush letters

LONDON Thu May 29, 2014 11:44am EDT

A still image from video shows former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking at an inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq War, at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, in central London January 21, 2011.   REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters TV

A still image from video shows former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking at an inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq War, at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, in central London January 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Parbul TV via Reuters TV

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LONDON (Reuters) - The long-delayed results of Britain's inquiry into the Iraq War came a step closer to publication on Thursday after a deal was reached on how to use notes and phone call records between then prime minister Tony Blair and U.S. president George W. Bush.

The investigation, called the Chilcot Inquiry, was set up by former prime minister Gordon Brown to learn lessons from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. It started its work in 2009.

The inquiry had hoped to deliver its verdict by the end of 2011 or in early 2012. However, five years after it was launched it has yet to report because of problems related to the release of confidential documents.

On Thursday, the inquiry announced a deal had been reached between it and the British government on the disclosure of communications between Blair and Bush, previously cited as one of the big stumbling blocks to publication of its report.

The inquiry's interest in their communications focuses on how open-ended Blair's support for Bush and the war was.

Blair, who has repeatedly denied blocking the release of the communications, has said he stands by his actions.

"Agreement has been reached on the principles that will underpin disclosure of material from Cabinet-level discussions and communications between the UK Prime Minister and the President of the United States," the inquiry said in a statement.

"Detailed consideration of material requested by the Inquiry from communications between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States has now begun. It is not yet clear how long that will take."

GISTS AND QUOTES

The material the inquiry has requested covers "gists and quotes" from 25 notes from Blair to Bush and more than 130 records of conversations. The inquiry is not seeking to use material that reflects Bush's views, it said.

As Britain comes closer to a national election in May 2015 contested by David Cameron's Conservative party and the opposition Labour party, once led by Blair, the timing of the report's release has become increasingly politically charged.

Anticipating that it could be critical of Blair and hence taint the party he led to three election victories by association, some Labour supporters are uncomfortable about the prospect of it coming out before the election.

The inquiry heard from senior politicians including Blair, who appeared twice, as well as former diplomats and military commanders.

When it does report, much of the focus will be on its conclusions about Blair's decision to commit 45,000 British troops to the invasion and on the legitimacy of a war in which 179 British soldiers were killed.

Critics have long argued Blair deliberately misled the public over the reason he gave for war - former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's illegal weapons of mass destruction - which were never found.

(Editing by Stephen Addison)

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