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MPs to grill Iraq inquiry chairman

Sir John Chilcot will face questions from MPs next week amid growing criticism of delays to his report into the Iraq war.

The inquiry chairman will appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday to discuss the process and "obstacles which remain".

Prime Minister David Cameron has been among those expressing frustration that the report has yet to be finalised, more than five years after the probe was launched.

The inquiry took evidence from its last witness in 2011 - but Sir John has confirmed its task will not now be completed until after the general election.

MPs are due to debate the delays to the report in Parliament on Thursday - with some demanding the existing text and key evidence be handed over immediately for publication.

In a letter to Mr Cameron earlier this month, Sir John explained that individuals criticised in the draft document were still being contacted so they have an opportunity to respond - a procedure known as Maxwellisation.

He also confirmed that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood had agreed to the publication of 29 memos from Tony Blair to then US president George Bush, with a "very small number of redactions", and along with material relating to conversations between the leaders.

But Sir John said there was "no realistic prospect" of delivering the report before May 7.

Giving evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee today, Sir Jeremy insisted he was also frustrated by the time the inquiry was taking.

He said his involvement had been "limited" to negotiating on the release of key documents and that had been completed in a matter of weeks.

"I don't think I have been responsible for delays to the John Chilcot process. Obviously it is for John Chilcot himself and his inquiry team to explain the delays," he told the committee.

"There was a disagreement, a discussion between departments and the inquiry as to whether or not certain very sensitive documents, which previously would never have been contemplated for publication, should indeed be published.

"That issue came to me for resolution in line with the protocol that was agreed and over a passage of weeks we resolved that to their satisfaction."

Sir Jeremy, who was Mr Blair's principal private secretary between 1999 and 2003, said he himself was not subject to the Maxwellisation process.

"Like everyone else I am very frustrated... to be honest we will clearly when the inquiry finally does publish we will want to speak to John Chilcot and his team and the secretariat to see what insights they have got on that question," he said.

"But I nobody expected it to go on this long. Clearly at the time when it was set up the then prime minister thought it would take about a year. The expectation was it would be towards the end of 2010, 2011.

"So it's obviously gone on a lot longer than anyone conceived of and we do need to learn the lessons from that."

The mandarin said the delays seemed to be down to those subject to the Maxwellisation process.

"I am not saying that they are deliberately trying to delay it but in good faith they are no doubt considering what has been said about them and trying to reply within a reasonable period of time," he said.

Sir Jeremy said he had taken a very "open" approach to the issue of whether documents should be released, and there would be "maximum transparency".

"But you have to take into some account the views of the intelligence agencies, our foreign relations and so on. Those are legitimate considerations, I think everyone recognises they have to be weighed in the balance."

There will only be a "very very small number" of redactions to the Blair memos, "really about non-Iraq issues" such as references to other governments or the intelligence agencies.

A statement on the inquiry website makes clear that Sir John is not willing to say "anything about the substance" of its work, discuss its "private internal processes" or give further details about Maxwellisation.

He will also not speculate further on possible dates for the publication of the report.

Sir John said: "My colleagues and I have served as members of this Inquiry longer than any of us expected would be necessary. But the inquiry has been given the task of examining all of the significant aspects of the UK's involvement in Iraq over a period of nine years.

"The issues the inquiry is considering are complex and controversial. To ensure that the conclusions we reach are well-founded, it is essential that our approach should be rigorous and comprehensive.

"We are conscious of our responsibility - to the public and to all those whose lives have been deeply affected by the events we are examining - to discharge our duty thoroughly, impartially and fairly."

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