Page last updated at 18:42 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

Blair questions remain after Iraq evidence

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News world affairs correspondent

Tony Blair's appearance in front of the Iraq inquiry was marked by his determination to justify his decision to take Britain into the war on Iraq in 2003.

Tony Blair: "In the end it was divisive and I'm sorry about that"

There was no mea culpa moment and no apology. He made a brief admission about being "sorry" about the divisions the war caused but said he took responsibility and had no regrets. Saddam had been a "monster".

"The decision I took, and frankly would take again was if there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction, we would stop him. It was my view then and that is my view now," was how he put it.

His main argument was strategic. After the attacks of 11 September, he argued, the world changed: "The primary consideration for me was to send an absolutely powerful, clear and unremitting message that after September 11th, if you were a regime engaged in WMD (weapons of mass destruction), you had to stop."

This meant that Saddam Hussein, he went on, could no longer just be contained and had to be confronted and disarmed.

"Up to September 11th, we thought he was a risk but we thought it was worth trying to contain it," he said.

"The point about this act in New York was that had they been able to kill even more people than those 3,000, they would have. And so after that time, my view was you could not take risks with this issue at all."

'Tough' on Iran

If the removal of WMD meant the removal of Saddam, because the one was not possible without the other, then so be it, was his argument.

He was also not challenged in detail about how Saddam could be a terrorist threat when, as Britain accepted, he had had nothing to do with al-Qaeda and 9/11

He had made it clear to President Bush in April 2002 that he would support the Americans in this enterprise but denied that there was any secret agreement.

For good measure, he also said that he took a "very hard, tough" line on Iran, which is defying UN resolutions to stop the enrichment of uranium. Since this inquiry is about Iraq, he was not pressed about what exactly he meant but whatever it was, he indicated that he meant it seriously.

He also rejected any criticism that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, stating that Security Council resolution 1441 from November 2003 was clear in giving Saddam one last chance to cooperate or face the consequences.

His one major admission came when he said, almost in passing and in a discussion about the post-war planning and chaos that the mission had nearly "failed." This was not followed up.

Mr Blair made secondary concessions only. He accepted for example that the 45 minute claim in the September dossier outlining the intelligence case could have been clearer. He rowed back from an interview he gave last year saying that he would have supported removing Saddam anyway.

"I couldn't describe the nature of the threat in the same way if I knew then what I know now"

Those who support Mr Blair and the US led invasion, will be pleased that he re-stated the case so clearly. He had one or two less certain moments, but overall, he was combative and ready for any argument.

Those against him might feel that he was not pressed enough on certain key pillars of his position.

One of these would be his strategic argument that Saddam had to be confronted post 9/11.

His statement including Iraq among states that "engaged in WMD" conflicts with the findings after the 2003 invasion of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the US-led investigation into whether Iraq did have any weapons of mass destruction.

The ISG reported that after the first Gulf war in 1991, "Iraq's WMD capability... was essentially destroyed." That of course happened under UN orders.

Terrorist threat

Mr Blair was not challenged on this at all and was allowed to leave the impression on several occasions that Saddam was rebuilding his weapons of mass destruction around the time of 9/11.

It is true that the ISG made a determination that Saddam would have tried to reconstitute his WMD if sanctions had been lifted, and Mr Blair made great play of this finding, which is indeed not always mentioned in this debate.

The ISG said: "His lieutenants understood WMD revival was his goal from their long association with Saddam and his infrequent, but firm, verbal comments and directions to them."

But that is not quite the same as giving the impression that Saddam already had them by 9/11.

He was also not challenged in detail about how Saddam could be a terrorist threat when, as Britain accepted, he had had nothing to do with al-Qaeda and 9/11.

The ISG concluded that Saddam's main concern in possibly regaining such weapons was Iran: "Iran was the pre-eminent motivator of this policy. All senior level Iraqi officials considered Iran to be Iraq's principal enemy in the region."

The inquiry could ask Mr Blair back in order to follow up some of these points. But time was limited and although several lines of questioning were quite persistent (about post-invasion chaos for example), he held his ground.

The Tony Blair of today is the same as the Tony Blair of yesterday.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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