Page last updated at 19:17 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

Iraq inquiry hears defiant Blair say: I'd do it again

Tony Blair: "I think that Saddam Hussein was a monster...it was better to deal with this threat"

Tony Blair has said the Iraq war made the world a safer place and he has "no regrets" about removing Saddam Hussein.

In a robust defence of his decision to back war, Mr Blair said Saddam was a "monster and I believe he threatened not just the region but the world."

The former prime minister was barracked by a member of the public as he made his closing statement at the end of a six-hour grilling at the Iraq inquiry.

He said Iraqis were now better off and he would take the same decisions again.

'Safer place'

Family members of service personnel killed in Iraq - and members of the public who got their seats after a public ballot - had been sitting behind Mr Blair in the public gallery as he was questioned about the build-up and aftermath of the Iraq war.

KEY POINTS
9/11 changed attitude to Iraq and meant tougher line was needed
Denied "covert" deal at Crawford summit with President Bush in April 2002 over invasion
Stood by "beyond doubt" claim over Iraq's chemical weapons
Basis for war was Iraqi breach of UN disarmament agreements not regime change
Should have corrected media reporting of 45-minute WMD claim
Second UN resolution preferable but not legally necessary
US offered "way out" option if UK could not provide troops

When Mr Blair left he was booed by some members of the public and two women shouted at him "you are a liar" and "you are a murderer".

Committee chairman Sir John Chilcot asked Mr Blair at the end of the session if he had any regrets about the war, but Mr Blair said that although he was "sorry" it had been "divisive" he believed it had been right to remove Saddam.

"It was better to deal with this threat, to remove him from office and I do genuinely believe the world is a safer place as a result."

He told the inquiry if Saddam had not been removed "today we would have a situation where Iraq was competing with Iran" both in terms of nuclear capability and "in respect of support of terrorist groups".

"The decision I took - and frankly would take again - was if there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction we should stop him."

'Covert deal'

Sometimes it is important not to ask the "March 2003 question" but the "2010 question", said Mr Blair, arguing that if Saddam had been left in power the UK and its allies would have "lost our nerve" to act.

Protesters near the Chilcot inquiry
Anti-war protesters were out in force near the Chilcot inquiry building

He also stressed the importance of taking a "tough line" with Iran, accusing the country of colluding with al-Qeada to destabilise Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion, rejecting claims the UK had taken a "cavalier" attitude to post-war planning.

Earlier witnesses to the inquiry have suggested he told Mr Bush at their April 2002 meeting at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, that the UK would join the Americans in a war with Iraq.

But Mr Blair denied striking a "covert" deal with the US President, saying he had been "open" about what he had told Mr Bush in private that "we are going to be with you in confronting and dealing with this threat".

Pressed on what he thought Mr Bush took from the meeting, he went further, saying: "I think what he took from that was exactly what he should have taken, which was if it came to military action because there was no way of dealing with this diplomatically, we would be with him."

But he also confirmed that a year later, on the eve of war, the Americans had offered Britain a "way out" of military action, which he had turned down.

ANALYSIS
Peter Biles
Peter Biles, BBC World Affairs correspondent:
Tony Blair adopted an almost evangelical tone as he mounted a robust defence of his decision to take Britain to war in Iraq. He remains a "true believer".

There was barely a hint of contrition or regret, in spite of the fact that bereaved families who lost loved ones in Iraq, were among those sitting behind him in the public gallery.

As Sir John Chilcot concluded the session, the chairman appeared to try to elicit a response from Mr Blair that might go some way to ease the anguish and anger felt by the families. Mr Blair did not take up the opportunity. Although he did say he was sorry about the war proving divisive he did not refer directly to the loss of Britons in Iraq.

One of the sisters of Margaret Hassan, the British aid worker who was kidnapped and killed in Iraq, said the only consolation to be drawn from this marathon session was that Mr Blair had been forced to appear before the Iraq Inquiry.

Mr Blair remained utterly firm in his belief that what he did in Iraq, was right. Few people watching, expected to hear anything else.

"I think President Bush at one point said, before the [Commons] debate, 'Look if it's too difficult for Britain, we understand'.

"I took the view very strongly then - and do now - that it was right for us to be with America, since we believed in this too."

On the issue of whether or not military action would be legal, Mr Blair said Mr Bush decided the UN Security Council's support "wasn't necessary". He said it was "correct" to say that he shared that view, although it would have been "preferable politically".

But he told the inquiry he would not have backed military action if Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had said it "could not be justified legally".

Asked why Lord Goldsmith, after initially saying he thought it would be illegal, in line with all government lawyers at the time, made a statement saying it would be legal a week before the invasion began, Mr Blair said the attorney general "had to come to a conclusion".

He said he had not had any discussions with Lord Goldsmith in the week before he gave his statement but he believed the attorney general had come to his view because weapons inspectors had "indicated that Saddam Hussein had not taken a final opportunity to comply" with UN demands.

Mr Blair was also quizzed about the controversial claim in a September 2002 dossier that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction (WMD) at 45 minutes' notice. Mr Blair said it "assumed a vastly greater significance" afterwards than it did at the time.

He said it "would have been better if (newspaper) headlines about the '45-minute claim' had been corrected" in light of the significance it later took on.

'Beyond doubt'

Looking back, he would have made it clearer the claim referred to battlefield munitions, not missiles, and would have preferred to publish the intelligence assessments by themselves as they were "absolutely strong enough".

But Mr Blair insisted that, on the basis of the intelligence available at the time, he stood by his claim at the time that it was "beyond doubt" Iraq was continuing to develop its weapons capability.

However he acknowledged "things obviously look quite different" now given the failure to discover any weapons after the invasion.

He also rejected claims he manipulated intelligence to justify the invasion.

I never regarded 11 September as an attack on America, I regarded it as an attack on us
Tony Blair, former prime minister

"This isn't about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception," he told the panel.

"It's a decision. And the decision I had to take was, given Saddam's history, given his use of chemical weapons, given the over one million people whose deaths he had caused, given 10 years of breaking UN resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons programmes or is that a risk that it would be irresponsible to take?"

Even up to the last minute Mr Blair said he was "desperately" trying to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis but France and Russia "changed their position" and were not going to allow a second UN resolution.

Saddam Hussein had "no intention" of allowing his scientists to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors, he said, with the regime concealing key material.

'Bigger threat'

Giving the inspectors more time would have made little difference, he added. He also said Iraq had the "intent" and technical knowhow to rebuild its weapons programme and would have done so if the international community had not acted.

Mr Blair also denied he would have supported the invasion of Iraq even if he had thought Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, as he appeared to suggest last year in a BBC interview with Fern Brittan.

What he had been trying to say, he explained to the inquiry, was that "you would not describe the nature of the threat in the same way if you knew then what you knew now, that the intelligence on WMD had been shown to be wrong".

Chillingly, the ex-prime minister showed no regret for his dubious decisions which led us into the worst foreign policy disaster in modern times
Angus Robertson, SNP

He said his position had not changed, despite what reports of the interview had suggested.

Mr Blair was at pains to point out that he believed weapons of mass destruction and regime change could not be treated as separate issues but were "conjoined".

He said "brutal and oppressive" regimes with WMD were a "bigger threat" than benign states with WMD.

He also stressed the British and American attitude towards the threat posed by Saddam Hussein "changed dramatically" after the terror attacks on 11 September 2001, saying: "I never regarded 11 September as an attack on America, I regarded it as an attack on us."

Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot began the six hour question session by stressing that Mr Blair was not "on trial" but said he could be recalled to give further evidence if necessary.

Opposition reaction

Conservative leader David Cameron said it was too soon to tell whether Mr Blair had misled the country about the reasons for going to war.

"Clearly, some of the information that was put in front of Parliament, the dodgy dossier for instance was just unacceptable and was wrong and shouldn't happen again but I think we have to wait for Chilcot's full report before we come to a full conclusion."

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, whose party opposed the war, said he "was not sure if people have learned that much which is substantially new from Tony Blair", but said it was a "good thing" he had appeared.

"Because that makes it all the more difficult for Britain ever to be taken to war again, simply on the personal whim of the prime minister," he added.

SNP Westminster Leader Angus Robertson said: "No matter how skilfully he ducked and dived today, Tony Blair's legacy will forever be that of the illegal, immoral Iraq war.

"Chillingly, the ex-prime minister showed no regret for his dubious decisions which led us into the worst foreign policy disaster in modern times."



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