Gordon Brown sparked anger from MPs in all parties and relatives of the 179 British servicemen killed in Iraq by announcing that an inquiry into the war would be held in private.
The Prime Minister was accused of a "fix" after revealing yesterday that the independent inquiry would not report until July next year – safely after the next general election, which must be held by June 2010.
There was also criticism that the inquiry team, chaired by former Whitehall mandarin Sir John Chilcot, was composed of the "great and the good" and was unlikely to rock the boat.
Critics also expressed concern that the year-long investigation would not "apportion blame" and feared that the team is thought unlikely to able to question the American architects of the controversial 2003 invasion such as Dick Cheney, the then vice-president, and Donald Rumsfeld, the then defence secretary. Tony Blair is expected to agree to be quizzed. Doubts were raised about whether the legality of the military action by British troops would be covered. Mr Brown said the inquiry would not consider issues of civil or criminal liability. But Downing Street insisted that the legal grounds could be investigated.
Brown allies pointed out that Tony Blair had always resisted a full-scale inquiry, saying Mr Brown overcame opposition in Whitehall to the move. They said it was best to hold it in private to prevent it becoming a "lawyers' paradise" dragging on for years, like the eight-year investigation into the Bloody Sunday killings.
Mr Brown's support for an inquiry was revealed by The Independent in March 2008. But MPs suspect he stalled the start until next month so it would not report before the election. He argued that it should not begin until most British troops returned home. There are now fewer than 500 in Iraq.
The long-awaited announcement was intended to win the Prime Minister plaudits from Labour MPs, many of whom opposed the war. Instead, Labour critics accused him of breaking a pledge to be more "open" when he saw off a plot to oust him a week ago.
Labour backbencher Gordon Prentice said: "I had hoped for a new politics of openness after last week. I am not prepared to accept a secret inquiry into Iraq and I want the Prime Minister to think again." David Hamilton, another Labour MP, said the "day of reckoning" could only come about through a public inquiry.
Labour's Andrew MacKinlay said the Prime Minister had not answered the "key question" of whether people would give evidence on oath. Nothing short of that would give the inquiry "veracity and integrity", he said.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, said the move belied Mr Brown's promise of a "new era of democratic renewal". He added: "The inquiry needs to be, and needs to be seen to be, truly independent and not an establishment stitch-up." The Tories reserved the right to change the terms of reference if they win the election. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader said: "A secret inquiry conducted by a clutch of grandees hand-picked by the Prime Minister is not what Britain needs. The Government must not be allowed to close the book on this war as it opened it – in secrecy."
The Prime Minister told the Commons that closed hearings would ensure evidence given to the inquiry by politicians, military officers, and officials would be as "full and as candid as possible". A public inquiry would mean "lawyers, lawyers and lawyers", he said.
The aim would be to "learn lessons" and the inquiry would cover an eight-year period from 2001 the conduct of the military campaign and the aftermath to the present day.
Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in Iraq in 2004, said: "We have fought and fought for this but it will be no use and it could all be for nothing behind closed doors... the families who lost loved ones just want a simple answer to a simple question: why did we go in to Iraq?"
Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society which won the inquiry pledge last year, welcomed the move but added: "The Government has now fumbled the public politics of the inquiry twice – getting caught in process arguments first about the timing of an announcement, and now about the nature [of] it. Perhaps some criticism was inevitable, but a broader approach would also have had broader support, and that is a chance that has been missed."
Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, which questioned the war's legality, said: "Without either openness or independence there can be no confidence in the inquiry and I am sure that the families of soldiers killed... will wish to challenge today's announcement."
Inquiry team: Seekers of truth?
*Sir John Chilcot (chairman)
Aged 70. Regarded in Whitehall as the ultimate securocrat. Served on Butler Inquiry into intelligence about Iraq's (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction. Chaired government review on use of intercept evidence in terrorist cases. Civil servant who rose to Permanent Under Secretary at Northern Ireland Office before retiring in 1997. Conducted reviews of royal and VIP security in 1999, and the Castlereagh Special Branch break-in 2002-3.
*Sir Lawrence Freedman
Aged 60. Professor of War Studies at King's College, London, since 1982. Seen by critics of the Iraq war as one of its architects. In 1999, Downing Street asked his views on "humanitarian intervention" – use of military action for liberal reasons. He was astonished when Tony Blair based a landmark speech in Chicago on his memo to No 10.
*Sir Martin Gilbert
Aged 72. Historian. Official biographer of Winston Churchill. Gordon Brown likes handing signed copies of his tome to visiting American politicians. In 2004, Gilbert argued that US President George Bush and Tony Blair might one day be seen as akin to Roosevelt and Churchill: "Many comment that today's leaders look small compared with the giants of the past. This is, I believe, a misconception."
*Baroness Usha Prashar
Aged 60. Kenyan-born crossbench peer. Was First Civil Service Commissioner, then chairman of Judicial Appointments Commission. Former director of the Runnymede Trust and chairman of Parole Board. Currently on the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and governor of the Ditchley Foundation on foreign affairs.
*Sir Roderic Lyne
Aged 61. Eton-educated, served as British diplomat from 1970 to 2004, including a spell as assistant private secretary to Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington from 1979-82. Private secretary for foreign affairs to Prime Minister John Major 1993-6. Was later British ambassador to Russia 2000-4 and now Russia expert at Chatham House think-tank.