The long-awaited public inquiry into Britain’s controversial role in the invasion of Iraq and the legality of the war opened here on Tuesday but even before it started taking evidence a controversy broke out over the choice of its chairman and his four fellow-members, all handpicked by Downing Street.

Some people, wearing masks caricaturing Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the former U.S. President, George W. Bush, protested outside the venue of the inquiry.

Critics denounced the probe as a “whitewash” and questioned its independence arguing that its chairman Sir John Chilcot, a retired civil servant, was an “establishment man” and none of its other members was a military expert.

One of the panelists, Sir Lawrence Freedman, a historian, was described as the “architect” of Mr. Blair’s contentious “doctrine” of humanitarian intervention abroad. Another, Sir Martin Gilbert, is credited with the remark that Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush “may well with the passage of time, and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill” for launching their “war on terror”.

Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown are among a long cast of high-profile witnesses set to give evidence to the committee. They will appear early next year. The former BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, who broke the story alleging that the invasion was based on “sexed-up” intelligence, said he had not been called.

The committee, which will hold most of the hearings in public, is not likely to give its report until after the next year’s general election prompting criticism about its long time-table.

The pressure on Sir John to look specifically into the legality of the invasion grew after a national newspaper published what it claimed were secret files showing that Mr. Blair had “misled” MPs on the issue.

In his opening statement, Sir John insisted that the his committee was apolitical and had an “open mind”. He assured that its report would be “thorough, impartial, objective and fair”. It would not hesitate to criticise institutions and individuals if “warranted”.

Two previous inquiries have looked into specific aspects of the Iraq invasion. This is the first to inquire into the political process that went into taking the decision to invade Iraq.

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