Gordon Brown provoked a political storm yesterday by rejecting calls for an immediate inquiry into the Iraq war and its aftermath.
The Prime Minister came under fire from opposition parties after he told the Commons it would not be "right" to have such an investigation until British troops return home next summer. Allies said Mr Brown does not want to consider an inquiry while a substantial number of British troops – currently 4,100 – remain in Iraq. They say he will need to revisit the issue next July, when fewer than 400 will remain to protect Iraqi oil platforms and train the Iraqi navy.
Ministers will come under huge pressure next summer not to use the smaller-scale presence as an excuse to further delay an inquiry. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, promised MPs last week: "We are not going to hide behind the idea that the last troops must have come home. We have always made it clear our commitment is in respect of combat troops, and we intend to honour that commitment."
Opposition parties believe Mr Brown is keen to ensure the full investigation does not report until after the next general election, which must be held by June 2010. Although the controversial 2003 invasion was seen as "Tony Blair's war", Mr Brown has backed it and said he would not have acted differently.
David Cameron demanded a "robust, independent inquiry", saying it is vital to learn lessons which could help during the campaign in Afghanistan. With up to 400 troops remaining in Iraq, there is a chance the investigation could be delayed for "many, many years", he said.
The Tory leader insisted there is no need to wait until all troops are home because past inquiries had been held while conflicts continued. Troops who have served in Iraq are owed an investigation, he said. He told Mr Brown the inquiry should look into the decision to go to war, and the mistakes made in its conduct and planning. "Do you accept that if we don't learn from the mistakes of the past we are more likely to make them again in the future?" he asked.
The Prime Minister confirmed that British military operations in Iraq would end by 31 May at the latest, saying a rapid withdrawal would be complete by July.
On the inquiry calls, Mr Brown said: "I have always said this is a matter we will consider once our troops have come home. We are not at that position at the moment, and therefore it is not right to open the question now."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, urged Labour and the Tories to apologise for backing an "illegal war" which he described as the "single worst foreign policy decision of the past 50 years" and called for a public inquiry.
Charles Kennedy, who opposed the war as Liberal Democrat leader, said it was "shameful" that the US and UK did not "even bother to count" the number of innocent lives lost during the conflict and occupation. He said it would leave a "legacy of hatred" for generations. The Prime Minister replied: "I do acknowledge the sufferings of the Iraqi people. You must not forget the violence against the Iraqi people practised by Saddam Hussein. We were dealing with a dictatorship and we now have a democracy."
Angus Robertson, leader of the Scottish National Party at Westminster, said: "Now that there is a timetable for withdrawing our forces, there is no reason why we cannot have a timetable for an inquiry."
Town pays its respects to war dead
The townspeople of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire line the street yesterday to pay their respects as hearses bearing the bodies of Sergeant John Manuel, Corporal Marc Birch, Marine Damian Davies, Lieutenant Aaron Lewis and Lance-Corporal Steven Fellows, who were killed in Afghanistan last week, drive past the war memorial from nearby RAF Lyneham.