LONDON (Reuters) - A decision to delay a long-awaited official report into Britain's role in the Iraq War until after a general election in May drew accusations of a whitewash on Wednesday and demands for British voters to be given its findings.
The investigation, headed by former civil servant John Chilcot, was set up six years ago to learn lessons from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq which ousted Saddam Hussein and its aftermath. Britain was the U.S. main ally in the war despite widespread public opposition.
Rose Gentle, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, said she was disgusted the report had taken so long to come out.
"We just feel totally let down, we just feel it's going to be a total whitewash now," she told BBC television.
The latest delay, said to be necessary to allow those criticized to respond, adds to a string of hold-ups ascribed in part to U.S. sensitivities about releasing exchanges between then-leaders U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The Chilcot Report's publication has become even more politically charged before what is expected to be a close national election between Prime Minister David Camerons's Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party.
Any criticism of Labour, which was in power at the time of the 2003 war, could damage its electoral chances, although current party leader Ed Miliband said he wanted the report to be published.
When it was announced in 2009, the report was expected to take a year but Chilcot said in a letter to Cameron this week it would still take some months to complete and that there was "no realistic prospect" of delivering it before the election.
Angry lawmakers repeatedly questioned the delay during a weekly question-and-answer session with Cameron in parliament.
One Conservative lawmaker criticized the inquiry's "disgraceful incompetence".
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the junior government coalition partner and the only major party to oppose the war, wrote to Chilcot saying the delay would damage public confidence in the report.
"If the findings are not published with a sense of immediacy, there is a real danger the public will assume the report is being 'sexed down' by individuals rebutting criticisms put to them by the Inquiry, whether that is the case or not," he wrote.
The phrase echoed an accusation made by the BBC at the time that Blair had "sexed up" a report on Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction to bolster support for going to war. Subsequent inquiries have since exonerated Blair from that charge.
Blair denied he had caused the delay in publication.
"Incorrect allegations and politically motivated speculation do nothing to shine a light on the issues involved. It is an independent inquiry and it should be allowed to proceed with its work," a statement from his office said.
David Davis, a former shadow home secretary (interior minister), said the report should be published before the election.
"This is for the whole country to understand why we made a terrible mistake in Iraq," he told the Guardian.
Cameron rebuffed claims that some were seeking to bury the report.
"There is no mystery in why this is taking so long, it is a very thorough report," Cameron said. "I don't believe, from what I understand, that anyone is trying to dodge this report or put off this report. We all want to see it."
Editing by Angus MacSwan