LONDON, (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told an official inquiry into the Iraq War on Friday that joining the 2003 U.S.-led invasion had been the right decision and denied he had left the military short of funding.
Brown, appearing just weeks before an election to discuss a war that still rankles with many Britons, acknowledged the human cost of the conflict, said mistakes had been made in the chaotic aftermath of the invasion but distanced himself from the most contentious decisions.
“I believe we made the right decision for the right reasons,” Brown told the five-person inquiry that he set up last year to learn lessons from the conflict following the withdrawal of British troops.
Brown said that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a “serial violator” of international law and that tackling him had been an important test for world powers after the Cold War.
“Obviously the loss of life is something that leaves us all sad, the loss of life particularly after the success of the initial military operation to remove Saddam Hussein is something that leaves me very sad indeed,” he said.
Commentators say Brown can expect some uncomfortable headlines from his appearance at the inquiry but do not believe it will cause him or Labour any lasting electoral damage. They argue most Britons who were deeply opposed to the Iraq war had already abandoned Labour at the 2005 election.
Brown, finance minister at the time of the invasion, is the most prominent figure to give evidence since his predecessor Tony Blair made a highly publicised appearance in January.
While Blair was criticised for saying he had no regrets about the conflict, Brown expressed sorrow for the deaths of both British servicemen and Iraqi civilians at the beginning and end of the hearing.
Although a far less vocal advocate of the war than Blair, critics, including senior civil servants and military chiefs, have accused Brown of failing to provide enough funding to equip troops properly.
Some relatives of the 179 British soldiers killed in Iraq said this led to unnecessary deaths and had urged the inquiry team to press Brown for answers.
The issue of support for Britain’s military remains relevant because 10,000 troops are fighting in Afghanistan and face a similar threat from insurgents.
“There was no time … when the Treasury said this is a better military option because it’s cheaper or less costly,” Brown told the inquiry. “Every request that military commanders made to us was answered. No request was ever turned down.”
The invasion of Iraq has been one of the most damaging episodes during the Labour Party’s 13 years in power, provoking internal divisions and huge public protests.
With an election due by June 3 and polls indicating that Britain is on course for a hung parliament, Brown would have wanted to avoid giving ammunition to his opponents.
Despite appeals by the inquiry’s chairman not to make the probe political, the opposition Conservative Party accused Brown of shirking the blame for any errors that had been made. “Gordon Brown was a member of the inner circle, but true to form he didn’t want to take any responsibility for decisions which had negative consequences,” said Conservative defence spokesman Liam Fox. “He admitted that planning for the war was deficient, but with typical weasel words he tried to pin the blame on everyone else, above all the Americans.”
Brown focused on Saddam’s failure to comply with United Nations resolutions as a justification, saying he had hoped diplomacy would prevail until the last minute. He said lessons learned from mistakes on rebuilding Iraq were being applied in Afghanistan. “We couldn’t persuade the Americans that this had to take the priority that it deserved. I regret this. I can’t take responsibility for everything that went wrong,” he said. “We won the battle within almost seven days but it has taken us seven years to win the peace in Iraq.”