Deal reached on release of 'gist' of Blair-Bush Iraq talks

Tony Blair with President George W. Bush in 2003 Discussions are taking place over the publication of confidential correspondence between Mr Bush and Mr Blair

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Details of the "gist" of talks between Tony Blair and George Bush before the Iraq war are to be published, the UK's Chilcot inquiry says.

But transcripts and full notes of conversations will remain secret, at the request of the Cabinet Office.

The agreement between the inquiry and Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood could clear the way for the report to be published this year.

It is thought to have been delayed by wrangling over what could be released.

The inquiry has been given access to full records of talks between the two leaders in the run-up to war but is being prevented by the government from publishing them in its final report, even after offering to block out sensitive parts.

The UK government's grounds for refusing the request to publish the full documents and transcripts is that it could prejudice future relations with the US.

The inquiry has instead been granted permission to "disclose quotes or gists of the content" to help explain its conclusions, inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot explained in a letter to Sir Jeremy.

Chilcot
Chilcot

The documents include 25 notes from Mr Blair to Mr Bush and more than 130 records of conversations between the former prime minister and then US president in the run-up to war.

In his letter, Sir John said "detailed consideration" of what to release was taking place.

"Considerations will be based on the principle that use of this material should not reflect President Bush's views. We have also agreed that the use of direct quotation from the documents should be the minimum necessary to enable the inquiry to articulate its conclusions," he writes.

Sir John says the inquiry has reached agreement on the "principles that will underpin disclosure" of communications between Mr Bush and Mr Blair.

Rose Gentle said that the letters and documents were "the main thing the families had to see"

The inquiry, which is examining the UK's participation in military action against Saddam Hussein and its aftermath, began in 2009 and its last public hearings took place in 2011. It has cost more than £7m so far.

Although the inquiry team, led by Sir John, has never set a target date or deadline for publication, it is generally accepted that the timetable for publication has slipped on several occasions.

Before publication can happen, letters must be sent out to individuals facing criticism in the report, under what is known as the "Maxwellisation" process, to give them an opportunity to respond.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq by British and US forces, on the pretext that it had "weapons of mass destruction", has already been the subject of several inquiries in the UK, including the Butler report into intelligence failings.

'Critical'

Mr Blair has said he wants the Chilcot report to be published as soon as possible and said this week he "resented" claims he was to blame for its slow progress.

There are concerns the report will not be released before the 2015 general election.

But Mr Blair said he was not blocking any documents, and publication would allow him "restate" the case for the 2003 invasion.

"It is certainly not me who is holding it up," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"The sooner it is published the better, from my perspective, as it allows me to make the arguments."

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Brown's document pledge

Gordon Brown

When Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in June 2009 the setting up of an inquiry to "learn the lessons" of the Iraq conflict, he wanted witnesses to be questioned behind closed doors to protect national security and so they could speak more freely. He swiftly backtracked after pressure from the opposition and former government officials who wanted public hearings. But he was clear about the need for openness when it came to secret papers, saying: "No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry. I have asked the members of the committee to ensure that the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information - that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security."

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David Cameron has said he hopes the report will be released before the end of the year.

Mr Blair, who appeared in person twice before the inquiry to justify his decision to take the UK to war, said he had an interest in the report being published as quickly as possible.

The inquiry got agreement this year on the release of more than 200 cabinet and cabinet committee meetings, which would not normally be published until 30 years after the events, if at all.

A small number of full extracts from the minutes of cabinet meetings judged by the inquiry to be "most critical" will be published alongside its final report.

'Sensitive issues'

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The government is pleased that agreement on a way forward on both cabinet papers and UK-US exchanges has now been reached with the inquiry.

"This allows for the declassification and publication of the material the inquiry believes it needs to explain its conclusions.

"Resolving this issue has taken longer than originally hoped but these are sensitive issues.

"The UK-US head of government channel is very important and must be handled sensitively.

"The government and the inquiry are working to ensure the inquiry's report is published as soon as possible, and the government is doing everything it can to facilitate that."

Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was killed while serving in Iraq, told the BBC she was "quite disappointed" that the full transcripts of what Mr Blair said to Mr Bush would not be published.

"We thought a lot of the documents might verify the truth about whether he did make a lot of mistakes or he knew what he was actually taking us into. The families are a bit disappointed really as we don't think we are going to get the truth now."

Asked whether she had previously had confidence in the Chilcot process, she said: "I did, because they were going into a lot of documents, a lot of questions. Now a lot of families think what was the point, what is going to be the outcome, is it just going to be covered up now?

"I think they should be released for the families to see them, because we're going to wonder for the rest of our lives what was in it."

Mrs Gentle is a founder member with Reg Keys, whose son was also killed in Iraq, of Military Families Against the War.

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