At UK’s Iraq inquiry, Gordon Brown says invasion justified _ blames US over postwar errors

By David Stringer, AP
Friday, March 5, 2010

Brown blames US over Iraq reconstruction errors

LONDON — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown insisted Friday the decision to invade Iraq was justified, but told a major inquiry into the war that the United States dismissed warnings of chaos and violence once Saddam Hussein was toppled.

In four hours of evidence to Britain’s inquiry on Iraq, a somber Brown repeatedly expressed regret over the lost lives of soldiers and civilians, and acknowledged mistakes were made by leaders in Washington and London.

Brown, who served as Treasury chief from 1997 to 2007 and approved military spending, dismissed claims he had choked Britain’s defense budgets or allowed soldiers to go to war without adequate equipment.

Defending his role in the conflict, but cautious not to inflame tensions over the unpopular war ahead of a looming national election campaign, Brown said joining the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was a tough call.

“We have got to recognize that war may be necessary, but it is also tragic in the effect it has on people’s lives,” said Brown, who voted — like a majority of British lawmakers — to approve Britain’s role in the war.

“These were difficult decisions … ,” Brown said. “I believe they were the right decisions for the right reasons.”

But he was critical of U.S. planning, saying American officials failed to heed warnings about the need for clarity on how to protect and govern Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion.

“It was one of my regrets that I wasn’t able to be more successful in pushing the Americans on this issue — that the planning for reconstruction was essential, just the same as planning for the war,” Brown said. He said he’d drafted a paper listing British reconstruction plans and sent it to the U.S. government in early March 2003.

The inquiry is Britain’s third and widest-ranging examination of the conflict, which triggered huge protests and left 179 British troops dead before the country’s forces withdrew from Iraq last year. The inquiry won’t apportion blame or establish liability, but will offer recommendations later this year on how to prevent errors in the future.

Brown initially appeared nervous as he began his testimony — toying with his suit jacket and a leather file containing a thick sheaf of notes — but soon relaxed, even smiling to members of the audience as he left for a lunch break.

“How are you finding it?” Brown asked onlookers as the hearing broke for a recess, though his question was met with silence.

Brown’s evidence followed testimony in January by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led the country to war.

Unlike Blair, who defiantly stood by the invasion and argued Saddam was a threat to the entire world, Brown said he believed the war was justified because Baghdad had breached international rules in failing to abide by U.N. resolutions.

He insisted Iraq had posed the first serious test to the post-Cold War world, claiming any failure to depose the Iraqi leader would have emboldened other dictators and stirred global tensions.

Brown also sought to distance himself from President George W. Bush, suggesting their relations were “amicable” and criticizing the doctrine of some members of Bush’s administration.

“I never subscribed to what you might call the neo-conservative proposition that somehow, at the barrel of a gun, overnight, liberty or democracy could be conjured up,” Brown told the panel.

In contrast to Blair’s electric evidence, audience members yawned and stretched as Brown testified — two people even left during a morning coffee break, leaving empty two prized seats earlier allocated in a public ballot.

Brown acknowledged that while he had played an important role in the Iraq war, he had not been invited to some key meetings and was unaware of the detail of letters exchanged between Blair and Bush.

“I had regular conversations with Tony Blair and we talked about those issues, but I do not have copies of those letters and I don’t know the exact conversation — and he wouldn’t expect me to,” he said.

Critics have charged that Brown cut military budgets, meaning troops lacked adequate equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen. Michael Walker, a former head of the British armed forces, said in an earlier hearing that the country’s senior military chiefs threatened to resign in a dispute with Brown in 2004 over funds.

Brown told the panel Britain spent 8 billion pounds ($12 billion) on the Iraq war on top of annual defense budgets.

“At any point, commanders were able to ask for equipment that they needed and I know of no occasion when they were turned down,” he insisted.

As he arrived for the hearing, Brown was heckled by a small band of protesters, though most dispersed well before he completed his testimony. During breaks in the hearing, Brown held private talks with some bereaved families.

Susan Smith, whose 21-year-old son, Pvt. Phillip Hewett, died in Iraq in 2005, watched inside the hearing room and questioned whether the forthcoming election had influenced Brown.

“I imagine he’s genuinely sorry, but is it for political reasons that he said it?” Smith said.

Initially, Brown planned to testify after Britain’s election, which is expected to be held May 6, but — under pressure from opposition lawmakers — later agreed to give evidence beforehand.

John Chilcot, head of the inquiry, has said he will seek meetings with former members of the Bush administration in the next few months.

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