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Tue, 24 Nov 2009 16:32 - Updated Tue, 24 Nov 2009 16:31

UK inquiry into Iraq war begins public hearings

London

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London - The Iraq war inquiry's public hearings begin in London with top civil servants and a former spy chief giving evidence on the conflict's origins.

The investigation, looking at the whole period from 2001 to 2009, is expected to last months, with a report not out until after the next general election.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair will be among the future witnesses.

Tuesday's session looks at UK foreign policy towards Iraq in the lead-up to the war, which began in 2003.

The long-awaited inquiry has begun with a statement from its chairman, Sir John Chilcot.

It will then hear from figures including Sir Peter Ricketts, who was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee - which oversees MI5, MI6 and GCHQ - from 2000 to 2001.

Others giving evidence are former senior Ministry of Defence official Simon Webb and ex-Foreign Office officials Sir Michael Wood and Sir William Patey.

The members of the inquiry's committee were chosen by Downing Street, leading critics to ask whether it can be independent of the government.

Sir John has insisted the inquiry will not produce a "whitewash" but critics have expressed concern about the lack of legal experts on the panel and the fact witnesses will not be questioned on oath.

On Wednesday, the panel will hear from former senior Foreign Office staff on the claims that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed "weapons of mass destruction".

Over the coming weeks the inquiry is expected to hear from a succession of diplomats, military officers and politicians, including Mr Blair, who is due to appear early in the new year.

Sir John Scarlett, the former chief of MI6 who as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2002 drew up the Government's controversial dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, is also due to give evidence to the five-strong inquiry panel.

Former Conservative leader Michael Howard said he would have preferred witnesses to be required to give evidence on oath.