Leading article: Why rake over the past when the future is at stake?

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The Independent has long argued for a full inquiry into the decisions that led to British troops being committed to combat in Iraq. The four inquiries held so far - Hutton, Butler, and two parliamentary committee inquiries - were too narrowly drawn. They have all fallen far short of the thorough and wide-ranging investigation into the whole complexion of political decision-making before the war that we - and a great many people in this country - felt was necessary to ensure that the appropriate lessons were learnt. Such an inquiry, preferably a full public inquiry, needs to be held.

The question is whether now is the right time. On the face of it, as Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party argued yesterday in the parliamentary debate they initiated, present circumstances in Iraq cry out for an investigation. There can be no doubt at all that the Iraq war has been a catastrophically ill-conceived and mismanaged venture. There can be no doubt either that the situation in Iraq is going from appalling to even worse.

Successive promises of improved security have come to nothing. It is all very well for the US and British governments to speak approvingly of the courageous participation of Iraqis in elections and of the need to back Iraq's "democratic" government. But the truth is that elections have not brought the hoped-for diminution of the violence, and the "democratic" government lacks authority in much of the country.

October was one of the costliest months in terms of American lives since the war began. Not a day goes by without the number of reported Iraqi casualties rising by several score. The Iraqi dead include police and troops trained by the US and British in what seems the increasingly vain hope that they will be able to take over responsibility for restoring order.

Last month, President Bush admitted that there might be parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. This week, the Foreign Office announced what it described as a partial relocation of staff from the British consulate in Basra in response to an increased threat of attack. If this is not the worst-case scenario envisaged at the outset by opponents of the war, it is hard to imagine what might be.

Yet the precariousness of the present situation is exactly why calls for an inquiry now, along the lines of the Franks inquiry after the Falklands War, are mistaken. The historic nature of the errors - of leadership or judgement - that took us into the war is quite clear. The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, has come close to admitting as much, and she almost did so again in yesterday's debate, when she described the challenges as "acute". The over-riding issue, however, must be the future of Iraq and the welfare of the British troops serving there. If their mission is called into question by MPs sitting comfortably in London, while they are serving in such a hostile environment, the adverse effect on morale can only be imagined.

This is not to say that there is no discussion that should be undertaken now. Yesterday's debate dwelt on the past. Only a few speakers called for an open debate of what should happen next in Iraq. But this should surely be the immediate priority. Through scandalously ill-considered action, we have smashed Iraq and destroyed thousands of lives. The political leaders who set all this in train seem at a loss to know how to proceed. It is a pity that yesterday's parliamentary debate - the first to be held on Iraq since the war began - was not directed towards pooling constructive ideas about how to improve the lives of Iraqis and speed the return of our troops. Regrettably, it was a lost opportunity.