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UK PM to appear before Iraq War inquiry before vote

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown confirmed on Friday he would appear at a public inquiry into the Iraq War before this year's election, a move which could damage the ruling Labor party at the ballot box.

The inquiry, led by former civil servant John Chilcot, had said it would not call Brown ahead of the vote, due by June, to avoid its hearings becoming caught up in party politics.

But Brown wrote to Chilcot earlier this week saying he was prepared to give evidence at any time.

Opposition parties had challenged Brown to appear after earlier hearings raised questions about his role while finance minister ahead of the 2003 U.S-led invasion.

Brown faces criticism for decisions on defense spending which critics say have hampered British operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron, his party ahead in the polls, said Brown had done the right thing.

"One of the lessons about what went wrong is to do with the commitment the government made, with things like equipment," Cameron said during a question and answer session with members of the public at a community center in Gillingham, southeast England.

"He was chancellor (finance minister) at the time, he has got some very important questions to answer. I am glad they are getting asked and I hope they will be answered before the general election," Cameron added.

Brown set up the Iraq inquiry last year to learn lessons from the conflict following the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq.

"In my letter I offered to give my evidence at any time. You have proposed a range of dates in the next two months. I will be happy to agree a date that is to the convenience of the Inquiry," Brown wrote in a letter to Chilcot.

Some Labor figures are concerned the inquiry is bringing a divisive issue back into the public arena before the election which the opposition Conservatives are expected to win.

The inquiry is rising up the political agenda and interest will peak next week when former Prime Minister Tony Blair appears on Friday, January 29.

On Thursday, former foreign minister Jack Straw told the inquiry he deeply regretted the loss of life in Iraq but defended his decision to back the invasion.

Many Labor supporters remain angry with Blair for leading the country into a war and occupation in which 179 British soldiers were killed.

(Reporting by Keith Weir and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Charles Dick)

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