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Let this be the fifth – and final – inquiry into the Iraq catastrophe

The Chilcot inquiry must lead a revolution in honesty and tell us how Britain and the US came to col

The fifth British inquiry into the Iraq war provoked outrage even before it had begun on 30 July. Given what has gone before, the pessimism is understandable.

Yet it may be misplaced. Initially, the long-awaited inquiry, led by Sir John Chilcot, was to be held in private. Now, following yet another reversal by Gordon Brown, it is expected that at least some of the proceedings will be held in public. There are signs of hope that important unanswered questions - uncertainty about the timing of the decision by first the United States and then Britain to invade Iraq, for example, and doubts about the manipulation of intelligence - may finally be explored transparently.

Sir John rightly wrote to the Prime Minister to insist that it was "essential" that much of the inquiry be held in public. Too much about our involvement in this wretched war has been shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity. In recent months, Iraq has arguably overtaken Afghanistan as the forgotten war: it is as if the British Establishment and, indeed, much of the media wish only to forget what happened, and why it happened, and who ultimately is culpable for a misadventure that led to the deaths of at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians, brought Islamist terrorism on to Britain's streets for the first time and radicalised a generation of young British-born Muslims.

This latest inquiry will begin by looking at events from 2001 and at how the case against Saddam Hussein's regime may have been compiled inside the White House in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks. For a generation of neoconservatives, led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Iraq remained unfinished business. The al-Qaeda atrocities offered an excuse to confront an old enemy in Saddam, who, it is now widely accepted, had no links to Osama Bin Laden and his murderous followers.

Closer to home, we may at last learn when exactly Tony Blair committed himself to regime change in Iraq. We know that David Manning, Mr Blair's chief foreign policy adviser, wrote to the prime minister on 14 March 2002, after dining with Condoleezza Rice in Washington: "I [told her] that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a parliament and a public opinion that was very different [from] anything in the States."

And yet, in February 2003, during his passionate, make-or-break, eleventh-hour speech to the Commons, Mr Blair claimed: "I detest his regime. But even now he can save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully. I do not want war . . . But disarmament peacefully can only happen with Saddam's active co-operation."

We hope the Chilcot inquiry will investigate and explain the contradiction in Mr Blair's position, as well as clarify at what point Britain in effect subcontracted its foreign policy to George W Bush. Of equal importance, we hope that the inquiry will explain why there was no proper postwar planning; the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, once Saddam was toppled, is universally agreed to have been a disaster. In shedding light on this and other matters, the new head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, will play a crucial role, assuming he will be called to give evidence, as he must be.

On 11 May 2003, while serving as Britain's envoy to Baghdad, Sir John wrote a memo to Mr Blair entitled "Iraq: What's Going Wrong". He described the postwar administration, led by the retired US general Jay Garner, as "an unbelievable mess" and further wrote that the Americans had "no leadership, no strategy, no co-ordination, no structure and [were] inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis". More generally, he argued, the "military culture in the capital needs to change". And reconstruction was happening "far too slowly".

As we have reported in recent weeks, some worry, with justification, that Sir John will seek to protect Mr Blair, for whom he worked, from criticism. Certainly he will enjoy an influential position as the chief conduit between the inquiry and the crucial intelligence about the alleged Iraqi threat that led to reports that Saddam's military would need only "45 minutes to attack" Iraq's enemies.

To retain credibility, however, he must also lead a revolution in honesty so far unseen from our intelligence services, and tell us how Britain and the US came to collaborate on the most spectacular foreign policy catastrophe in living memory.