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Writing official history: Britain's Iraq Inquiry begins

LONDON —  There was a moment of silence for all the dead of Iraq today. The place: the Queen Elizabeth Conference Center, across the square from the Houses of Parliament. The occasion: the first public session of The Iraq Inquiry (official name).

The Inquiry is chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a member of that unique British species, the Whitehall Mandarin. These are the senior civil servants who form a permanent shadow government, guiding Britain's ever changing cast of elected leaders towards decisions in the "national interest."

Chilcot opened today's proceedings with a cascade of emollient words: His committee approached the subject with "open minds." They were "independent and apolitical," hoping to explore a "range of challenging perspectives" on how Britain got into the sorry mess that the Iraq war became. It would be open. (Live stream of proceedings is here.)

There is a fair amount of skepticism about the Inquiry. This country has a long history of conducting inquests into terrible events caused by government mistakes with very little tangible results to show for them. Inquiry reports tend to either whitewash events or get buried. Take for example the inquest into the tragedy of Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. On Jan. 30, 1972, British soldiers shot and killed 13 demonstrators in Derry, a 14th soldier later died in hospital. An inquiry at the time blamed the IRA for opening fire on the army. Decades of doubt over that report culminated with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, ordering a new inquiry in 1998. It took two years for Lord Saville to get his team together and the Inquiry organized. Saville began taking testimony in 2000; the last witness his commission heard was in 2005. The Saville report has yet to be published.

Today, Sir John Chilcot tried to defuse concerns about his committee's findings being similarly deep-sixed. He said this round of testimony would last until mid-February. Another round of public hearings would begin in "the middle of next year." But he gave himself an out, saying that the process might go on into 2011. He did not say how long it would take his team to collate the testimony and the information in secret documents that have been provided to them into a coherent report with recommendations. A reasonable guess is that it won't see the light of day before the 10th anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam. That would be spring 2013.

Whether the report is worth waiting for will be come clearer later this week. Thursday, Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's ambassador in Washington during this period, is scheduled to testify for three hours. If he isn't pressed by Chilcot and co. on the details of why Tony Blair, didn't stand up to the Bush administration when it became clear that there was no American plan for what to do the day after Saddam was overthrown, we will have the first indication the Inquiry is a waste of time. Friday, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, ambassador to the U.N. will be summoned. If Greenstock doesn't honestly answer questions about his and Colin Powell's performances in the infamous WMD debate at the U.N. (remember Powell's little vial of deadly chemicals?) as well as questions on what he was really telling Blair in his dispatches from Baghdad in the autumn of 2003 and spring of 2004 then we will know for sure that Chilcot and his team are wasting time.

We won't need to wait until mid-2010, when Blair himself is expected to testify.