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Iraq inquiry: it's too early to shout "whitewash"

Those already denouncing Chilcot hearings should be patient

The Iraq inquiry got under way this morning with Sir John Chilcot promising that his team will be "fair, rigorous and frank". Chilcot began, rather appropriately, I thought, with a moment's silence for all those killed in Iraq.

There has already been some criticism over the size of the inquiry room, with a large number of journalists turned away at the door. Channel 4's Gary Gibbon writes: "This must be the smallest room used for an inquiry ever. I estimate it is 10m x 10m. I have seen bigger inquiry rooms at a council planning hearing."

The green-ink brigade were shouting, "Whitewash! whitewash!" even before Chilcot had delivered his opening statement. But short of Tony Blair being arraigned in The Hague for war crimes, it is hard to think of anything that could satisfy them.

The opening statement confirmed that the inquiry will be modelled closely on the Franks inquest into the Falklands war, seeking to learn lessons and making recommendations for future governments. But unlike that exercise, as much of the new Iraq inquiry as possible will be held in public, thanks to Chilcot's victory over Gordon Brown. His decision to stand up to the Prime Minister over this central issue bodes well for the future.

He issued an appeal for evidence from members of the public, an effort to prevent the inquiry merely presenting an establishment view of the war.

We don't want to, and are not, just hearing from the "official" representatives. We value hearing a broad spectrum of views from a wide range of people and organisations. We want to know what people across Britain think are the important questions. We want to get a range of challenging perspectives on the issues we are considering.

He also urged the public to be patient, pointing to a further round of hearings due to be held in the middle of 2010. He said: "We expect to invite back some previous witnesses and, where relevant, call some new ones. What I would like to stress now is that people should not jump to conclusions if they do not hear everything they expect to in the first round of hearings: there will be more to follow."

I'm dubious about the inclusion in the panel of Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the architects of Blair's version of "liberal interventionism", and Sir Martin Gilbert, who once compared Bush and Blair to Churchill and Roosevelt, but Chilcot himself appears, for now at least, robustly independent.

With the mountain of documents the committee has to go through, I'd be surprised if the inquiry concludes before the end of 2010. But I am quietly confident that this won't be the "establishment whitewash" some expect it to be.