Senior military and intelligence officers have condemned Gordon Brown's decision to hold the Iraq war inquiry in secret, warning that it looks like a cover-up.
Military leaders, who have lost 179 personnel in Iraq, want their actions judged by the public, and intelligence officials say that politicians' manipulation of intelligence should be thoroughly examined.
The pressure on No 10 mounted yesterday as the shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, tabled a Commons debate for next week demanding that inquiry evidence be heard in public. The Conservatives will be supported by rebelling Labour backbenchers and by Liberal Democrats, who could force another embarrassing parliamentary defeat on Mr Brown.
General Sir Mike Jackson, head of the Army during the Iraq invasion, said: "I would have no problem at all in giving my evidence in public." He said Mr Brown's decision that the proceedings be held in private fed "the climate of suspicion and scepticism about government", adding that the Prime Minister ought to consider requiring witnesses to give evidence on oath.
"I do not see why it could not have gone for a halfway house with sessions in public and then having private hearings when it comes to intelligence," said General Jackson. "And they do have to look at the intelligence that Blair used in the run-up to the war... which at the end turned out to be fool's gold.
"They say they are modelling this on the Franks inquiry into the Falklands War. Well that was 30 years ago in a very different world. The main problem with a secret inquiry in the current climate of suspicion and scepticism about government is that people would think there is something to hide. And public perception at the moment is terribly important."
He added: "We are told that having a private inquiry will make people more candid. But none of the evidence will be given under oath and also the inquiry has no power of subpoena. These are things that should be looked at."
Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of Defence Intelligence, said: "There is only one reason that the inquiry is being heard in private and that is to protect past and present members of this Government. There are 179 reasons why the military want the truth to be out on what happened over Iraq."
As a former deputy chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir John was asked for advice by members of the Defence Intelligence Service unhappy at the way the "dodgy dossier" on weapons of mass destruction was being put together. "We have worrying questions about how intelligence was ramped up to suit Tony Blair and his cronies and their reasoning for invasion," he said. "There is no reason why intelligence officials alone should have to carry the can for this. If there is anything particularly secret – and God knows there is precious little left secret over Iraq – then that can be heard in camera."
Major General Julian Thompson, who was highly decorated for his command of the Royal Marines in the Falklands, said: "I do not see why this has been based on the Franks inquiry into the Falklands. At that time the Cold War was on and protecting Western secrets in things like communication was used as the reason to hold the inquiry in secret. That is certainly not the case now. Also, the Falklands was essentially a failure of intelligence.
"Here we are looking at something much more serious: the allegation that a British government manipulated intelligence to take part in an illegal war.
"There is no reason why the public should not be able to hear the witnesses and judge what they say for themselves. We should not have to depend on a group of people handpicked by the current Government. A report from a secret inquiry will look like a whitewash."
One serving senior officer who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan said: "It was a political decision to go to war and we followed orders, although a lot of us had private reservations.
"One thing I do remember is how urgent procurement orders were delayed and delayed because the Government wanted to pretend it was still following diplomatic channels. This was one of the main reason for the shortages we faced and this resulted in lives being lost. We won't mind details of that coming out to the public."
The Tories hope to defeat the Government next Wednesday by holding an opposition day debate demanding that "the proceedings of the Committee of Inquiry should whenever possible be held in public". Labour rebels are drumming up support among colleagues to back the motion, with one saying he would do "everything in my power" to force Mr Brown into a U-turn. Defeat six weeks ago in a Liberal Democrat opposition day debate about Gurkhas' rights to live in the UK made the Prime Minister change government policy.
Mr Hague said there was "clearly a widespread dissatisfaction across all parties and throughout the country" over the format. "There is still time for them to put this right. To have real credibility, the inquiry needs to be open to the public whenever possible and to have a wider and more diverse membership."
Even senior Labour loyalists have been angered by the inquiry's parameters. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Mike Gapes, openly criticised the Prime Minister last night. It was "a missed opportunity", he said. "A major reason for holding this inquiry was to reassure the public that nothing was being held back because it has been such a controversial topic. This will not help," he added.
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