LONDON – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be quizzed sooner than expected about his role in the decision to join the unpopular war in Iraq, the chairman of an inquiry into the conflict confirmed Friday.
Brown's testimony, just weeks before Britain's June 3 general election, is unlikely to help his Labour Party, which is widely expected to lose the vote.
John Chilcot, who is leading the inquiry, said he originally wanted Brown and other ministers to appear after the election to keep the proceedings "from being used as a platform for political advantage by any party."
Brown's opponents complained, however, that allowing the prime minister to avoid being called to testify before the electoral contest was unfair.
Brown said the decision was not his to make and that he was ready to appear at any time, his office said.
Chilcot said Friday he had agreed to move Brown's testimony forward "as a matter of fairness." Also expected to testify in the inquiry before April are Foreign Secretary David Miliband and International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander.
Brown was Treasury chief when former Prime Minister Tony Blair threw his support behind the American effort to unseat Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The invasion split British public opinion and spawned a huge protest movement, and much remaining support for the campaign withered away as Iraq descended into chaos.
Brown has also been criticized for allegedly depriving troops in the field of equipment. Geoff Hoon, defense secretary at the time of the invasion, said this week that Brown's Treasury had underfunded the military for years.
Although opposition politicians praised the move as a chance to hold Brown accountable, one expert said he doubted the prime minister's appearance would sway many voters either way.
"Is this going to make much of a difference in terms of Labour's performance? I'd be very surprised," said Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at Nottingham University.
Although public anger over the decision to go to war with Iraq still lingers, Fielding said the inquiry's sedate proceedings — many of which have involved cross-examining senior bureaucrats about the exchange of interdepartmental memos — have had little impact on voters' consciousness.
Fielding said Brown, whose party is trailing badly in the polls, may have decided it was less damaging to appear before the inquiry than to appear to be hiding from it. He also noted that the embattled leader faces three live televised debates with his political opponents in the coming months.
"Maybe he needs practice," Fielding said.