Tory Foreign Secretary's directive not to discuss legality of war ahead of 10th anniversary sparks anger from Liberal Democrats
William Hague has provoked a bitter row within the coalition by privately writing to other members of the cabinet urging them not to discuss the case for, or the legality of, the Iraq war in the runup to the 10th anniversary of the invasion later this month, the Guardian can reveal.
In a confidential letter, the foreign secretary told senior members of the government they should not be drawn on the controversial issues that drew the UK into a politically divisive conflict that led to the death of almost 200 British troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
But the instruction from Hague last week has infuriated Liberal Democrat ministers within the government, who intend to defy the edict.
While Tony Blair's decision to launch the invasion against Saddam Hussein was strongly supported by the Tories at the time, the Lib Dems have consistently argued that the case for war was flawed and contrived, and the invasion flouted international law.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, is expected to make a speech about Iraq before the anniversary on 19 March.
In the correspondence, Hague stated that ministers should await the findings of the much delayed public inquiry led by Sir John Chilcot, which has been considering the UK's involvement in Iraq for three years, but is unlikely to report until the end of the year.
The Foreign Office said it could not discuss confidential ministerial correspondence, but Whitehall sources confirmed the letter was sent. They denied that it was intended as a way of gagging ministers on what remains a toxic political issue.
"The foreign secretary has written to colleagues to remind them that the agreed position of the coalition government is not to comment on the case or justification for the war until Chilcot has reported" said a source close to Hague.
"This is about allowing the inquiry to reach its conclusion, not having the government prejudge them. In opposition, the foreign secretary strongly supported establishing an inquiry, so it would be ridiculous to suggest he is trying to limit or stifle debate or discussion."
Hague's letter to the cabinet made clear that "not prejudging Chilcot should not prevent [ministers] acknowledging the sacrifices of the armed forces".
Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Lib Dem leader, said: "With the exception of some courageous individuals, the Conservative party supported the ill-conceived military action against Saddam Hussein. Indeed, there were some occasions when the [Tory] leadership almost seemed more enthusiastic about the action than the government itself.
"It has been 10 years since the momentous events which led to our being embroiled in Iraq. It is perhaps not surprising that the Conservatives are reluctant to discuss their role in what is generally regarded as the biggest foreign policy blunder since Suez.
"The Liberal Democrat position was then and remains now totally clear. This was an illegal war based on alleged intelligence which was later found to be without foundation. I can see no reason why in 2013 these issues should not be canvassed fully so that we can learn from the mistakes of the past."
A senior Lib Dem source said: "William Hague is entitled to his views on what should be said about the Iraq war but he can't force them on the Lib Dems. The idea that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats will be mute on the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq will get very short shrift indeed. The party called it right on the Iraq war a decade ago. The Lib Dems won't shirk from our views on this illegal and unjust conflict a decade on.
Chilcot's report will be a million words long but, despite the suggestion in Hague's letter, it is by no means certain he will make a definitive ruling on the legality of the war. Instead, the report is likely to set out the arguments from both sides, without drawing any conclusion.
With a panel of four experts, Chilcot's investigation has provoked opposition in Whitehall to the disclosure of key documents relating to the invasion of Iraq, notably records of discussions between Blair and the US president George Bush.
Last year, Chilcot made it clear in a letter to David Cameron that he and his fellow panel members had become deeply frustrated by Whitehall's refusal to release papers, including those that reveal which ministers, legal advisers and officials were excluded from discussions on military action. The papers still kept secret include those relating to MI6 and the government's electronic eavesdropping centre, GCHQ.
Giving an update on the progress of his report, Chilcot said: "There are a number of particularly important categories of evidence, including the treatment of discussions in Cabinet and Cabinet committees and the UK position in discussions between the prime minister and the heads of state or government of other nations to be addressed."
The inquiry held 18 months of public hearings between 2009 and 2011. A succession of witnesses, ranging from former cabinet secretaries to military commanders, sharply criticised the way Blair and his advisers took decisions without consulting senior ministers and the then attorney general, Lord Goldsmith.
Chilcot has said Blair's claim that MI6 established "beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was "not possible to make on the basis of intelligence".