Major: Iraq doubts may 'fester' without full disclosure

Tony Blair with President George W Bush It is more than 10 years since the invasion of Iraq

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Sir John Major has said it is a "pity" that transcripts and full notes of conversations between Tony Blair and George W Bush about the lead-up to the Iraq war will remain secret.

The former prime minister said the decision to release only the "gist" of talks between the two men could allow suspicions about the war to "fester".

He suggested Mr Blair should try to overrule the Cabinet Office's decision.

But he insisted the current government should have no say in the matter.

The Iraq Inquiry revealed on Thursday it had reached an agreement with Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood about the release of confidential information which could clear the way for its longstanding report into the war to be published this year.

But its decision to exclude full details of correspondence between Mr Blair and former US president George Bush has angered the families of British personnel who lost their lives in Iraq.

Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was killed in 2004, said the families felt "let down".

'Unresolved'

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

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

The Cabinet Office's grounds for this decision is that it could prejudice future relations with the US.

Instead, the inquiry has been granted permission to "disclose quotes or gists of the content" to help explain its conclusions.

Sir John, Tony Blair's predecessor as prime minister, said he regretted the decision.

"I think it is a pity that the papers are going to be withheld for several reasons," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Firstly, they will leave suspicions unresolved and those suspicions will fester and may worsen. And secondly, in many ways, I think withholding them is going to be very embarrassing for Mr Blair, not least because he brought the Freedom of Information Act into law when he was in government."

'Strict rules'

He said there were "strict and proper rules" preventing current governments from getting access to the papers of previous administrations, meaning David Cameron was not able to intervene in the process.

Sir John Major Sir John said there were strict rules about ministers' access to past documents

"That is the decision that has been reached by the Cabinet Office," he added.

"I suppose the previous Labour government could approach them and say, 'We would like to overrule this and think it is better they release those papers,' but the government cannot do that. Let me make that clear.

"Mr Blair could, the previous Labour government could. Maybe in their own interests they should because otherwise this will fester and nobody wants to see that."

Sir John said he understood the inquiry's frustration about the protracted negotiations over the release of documents but still believed it would deliver an "excellent report".

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.

Publication

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 Chilcot, 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.

Mr Blair has said he wants the report to be published as soon as possible.

David Cameron has said he hopes the report will be released before the end of the year but there are concerns it may not happen before the 2015 general election.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq by British and US forces, carried out on the basis 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.

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