Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Sunday, 13 December 2009

Blair's Iraq war comments 'surprised' defence secretary

"I can't really think we'd be better with him and his two sons still in charge" - Clip courtesy Fern Britton Meets... Tony Blair

The defence secretary says he was "surprised" Tony Blair said he would have gone to war even if he knew Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

The ex-PM said Saddam was a threat to the region and he would have used other arguments to justify the 2003 invasion.

Asked if he was surprised to hear that, Bob Ainsworth said: "A little bit."

But ex-deputy PM John Prescott said Mr Blair's words "fit in with" what he had said to him at the time and were a "reasonable approach in the argument".

Mr Prescott told the BBC that Mr Blair's point was that Saddam had used chemical weapons on his own people, defied UN resolutions and "he felt the man should not be staying there because of the problems of the region".

But Mr Prescott said that all the intelligence agencies at the time believed Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction so the arguments put forward at the time were all honestly put ones.

I sympathise with the people who were against... but you know, in the end I had to take the decision
Tony Blair

Mr Ainsworth, who was deputy chief whip for the 18 March 2003 vote, said he could not say how the Commons eve of war result would have gone without the WMD argument being made.

He said: "That is a parallel universe that didn't exist. I supported the war in Iraq based on the arguments that were put at the time and a big part of those arguments was - and I firmly believed that they existed - was the existence of WMD at that time.

Asked if Mr Blair's comments were a mistake, he said: "I don't know."

Speaking on BBC One's Fern Britton Meets programme, Tony Blair was asked whether he would still have gone on with plans to join the US-led invasion had he known at the time that there were no WMD.

He said: "I would still have thought it right to remove him. I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments, about the nature of the threat."

He added: "I can't really think we'd be better with him and his two sons still in charge, but it's incredibly difficult.

"That's why I sympathise with the people who were against [the war] for perfectly good reasons and are against it now, but for me, you know, in the end I had to take the decision."

'Cynical ploy'

He added that there had been "12 years of United Nations to and fro on this subject" of Iraq's weapons and that Saddam had "used chemical weapons on his own people".

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, backed Mr Blair's stance. The foreign minister, a member of a government brought into being as a result of the invasion, was a senior Kurdish official during the 1990s.

But Hans Blix, who was in charge of the UN team searching Iraq for WMD, said he thought Mr Blair used WMD as a "convenient justification" for war.

"Saddam's removal was a gain but it's the only gain that I can see from the war," he said, adding that Mr Blair's statement had a "strong impression of a lack of sincerity".

Conservative MP Richard Ottoway, a member of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, said Mr Blair's comments were a "cynical ploy to soften up public opinion" before his appearance at the Iraq Inquiry.

He added that some MPs may had made a different decision had they known the "full unvarnished truth".

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell agreed, saying he would have failed to obtain the support of the Commons.

Reg Keys, the father of a British soldier killed in Iraq in 2003, said he thought Mr Blair was "struggling to find some moral high ground in order to justify the total farce of the Iraq invasion".

Mr Blair is set to be a key witness in the New Year at the Iraq inquiry, which is looking at the whole build-up to the war and its conduct and aftermath.

Tory leader David Cameron said it was essential that as much of his evidence as possible was held in public after suggestions Mr Blair might give evidence behind closed doors.

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