LONDON - 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 criticism that the inquiry team, chaired by former Whitehall mandarin Sir John Chilcot, was composed of the "great and the good" and unlikely to rock the boat.
Critics also expressed concern that the year-long investigation would not "apportion blame" and feared that the team was unlikely to be able to question the US architects of the controversial 2003 invasion such as Dick Cheney, the then Vice-President, and Donald Rumsfeld, the then Defence Secretary. Former Prime Minister 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.
Brown said the inquiry would not consider issues of liability. But Downing Street insisted that the legal grounds could be investigated.
Brown's allies pointed out that Blair had always resisted a full-scale inquiry, saying 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.
Brown's support for an inquiry was revealed in March last year. 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 Cameron, the Tory leader, said the move belied Brown's promise of a "new era of democratic renewal". 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.
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 into 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."