Britain’s Tony Blair: Iraq invasion inspired by post-Sept 11 threat of mass destruction

By Jill Lawless, AP
Friday, January 29, 2010

Blair offers his justification for Iraq war

LONDON — An unrepentant Tony Blair defended his decision to join the United States in attacking Iraq, arguing Friday before a British panel investigating the war that the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks made the threat of weapons of mass destruction impossible to ignore.

The former British prime minister said he reflected every day on the decision to go to war — a decision that haunts his legacy. He said he felt “responsibility, but not a regret for removing (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein.”

“I think he was a monster, I believe he threatened not just the region but the world … and I do genuinely believe that the world is safer” now that he is gone, Blair said the end of six hours of questioning before a sweeping inquiry into the war.

As Blair left the room by a side door he was heckled by members of the audience. One shouted: “You are a liar!” and another added “And a murderer!”

Blair said the Sept. 11 attacks made him completely shift his view of Saddam.

Before that, “Saddam was a menace, that he was a threat, he was a monster, but we would have to try and make the best of it,” he told the panel.

But the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States, changed everything, he said.

“If those people inspired by this religious fanaticism could have killed 30,000, they would have,” Blair said of terrorists who hijacked four planes and crashed them into New York’s World Trade Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

“After that time, my view was you could not take risks with this issue at all,” Blair said.

The panel in London is Britain’s third and widest-ranging investigation into the Iraq conflict, which triggered huge protests and left 179 British troops dead. The British military withdrew from Iraq last year.

The probe is not intended to apportion blame or hold anyone liable for the war. But it could embarrass American and British officials who argued — wrongly — the war was justified because the Iraqi dictator was developing weapons of mass destruction and building ties with al-Qaida.

Blair appeared somber and tense as he began his scheduled six hours of testimony. He grew feistier as the day went on, gesturing, smiling and, at times, correcting what he saw as flawed questions from panel members.

The audience in the hearing room included family members of soldiers and civilians killed or missing in Iraq — all of whom sat quietly as Blair testified.

Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in Iraq in 2004, said she felt revulsion at Blair’s presence.

“Actually, I felt sick,” she said. “He seemed to be shaking as well, which I am pleased about — the eyes of all the families were on him.”

Emotions also ran high outside, where demonstrators chanted and read the names of civilians and military personnel killed. Some 150 protesters shouted “Jail Tony!” and chanted “Blair lied — thousands died,” as police officers looked on.

The five-member panel pressed Blair on when exactly he offered President George W. Bush support for an invasion. Earlier witnesses claimed he promised it in 2002, more than a year before Britain’s Parliament approved military action.

The former British ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer, told an earlier hearing that an agreement had been “signed in blood” by Bush and Blair during a meeting at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002.

“The only commitment I gave — and I gave this very openly at the time — was a commitment to deal with Saddam,” Blair said Friday. He said military options were discussed, but insisted he told Bush that Britain wanted to exhaust diplomatic routes before an invasion of Iraq was considered.

Blair said after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. and Britain had grown increasingly wary about the threats posed by Libya, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, but he admitted other nations didn’t share their heightened concern.

“Particularly in Europe, I didn’t get the same impression,” Blair said.

He acknowledged that prewar intelligence about Saddam’s weapons programs was “sporadic and patchy,” but said based on the intelligence, “it was hard to come to any other conclusion than that this person is continuing WMD programs.”

“You would have been hard pushed to find anybody who doubted he had WMD,” Blair said.

While Blair offered little contrition, he conceded that errors were made both before and after the war. He said planners believed postwar challenges would center on humanitarian needs, fallout from the use of chemical weapons and defending Iraq’s oil fields. Instead, the occupying powers faced an infrastructure in collapse and a fierce sectarian insurgency.

“We planned with one assumption that turned out to be wrong then we also ended up with a fresh problem that I don’t think people foresaw,” Blair said.

“People did not think that al-Qaida and Iran would play the role that they did,” Blair said of the postwar insurgency.

Blair repeatedly raised the current nuclear threat from Iran in his testimony, warning that modern leaders must soon take similar tough choices to those once faced on Iraq to deal with Tehran’s nuclear program.

“I hold this fear stronger today than I did back then because of what Iran is doing,” Blair told the inquiry. “A large part of the destabilization in the Middle East today comes from Iran.”

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, meant to produce power for its growing population, but the United States, Britain and others believe it aims to produce nuclear weapons. There is a new push for sanctions against Iran at the United Nations over the nuclear issue.

Blair acknowledged that the decision to join the war against Iraq — which led to the largest public protests in a generation in London — had met with opposition, even in his own Cabinet.

The former British leader arrived at the conference center before dawn Friday, dodging demonstrators by entering through a cordoned-off rear door. They were still there, noisily protesting, when he finished testifying hours later.

“The one thing I found throughout this whole matter from a very early stage is that I was never short of people challenging me on it,” Blair told the panel.

Associated Press Writer Gregory Katz contributed to this report.

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