LONDON, (Reuters) – Former British prime minister Tony Blair defended the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on Friday, saying the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States meant Saddam Hussein had to be disarmed or removed.
The al Qaeda strikes against U.S. cities had transformed the global security picture, raising the risk that militants could kill even more people if weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from a rogue state were to fall into their hands, Blair said.
Facing the first official public grilling on why he sent 45,000 British troops to war in Iraq, Blair batted away questions about the legality of the invasion but admitted for the first time there had been mistakes in the post-war planning.
The decision to go to war was the most controversial episode of Blair’s 10-year premiership, provoking huge protests, divisions within his Labour Party and accusations he had deceived the public about the reasons for invasion.
“This isn’t about a lie, or a conspiracy, or a deceit, or a deception, this is a decision,” said Blair, who initially looked nervous but grew more confident as the hearing went on. “And the decision I had to take was, given Saddam’s history, given his use of chemical weapons, given the over 1 million people whose deaths he caused, given 10 years of breaking U.N. resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons programme? “I believed … that we were right not to run that risk,” added Blair, saying he was convinced even now that Saddam was intent on restarting his WMD programme even though no such weapons have ever been found.
The Iraq war sapped support for Blair and his Labour Party and the issue still provokes deep public anger, seven years after the invasion to topple Saddam and almost three years after Blair handed over to Gordon Brown.
Commentators say the current public inquiry could damage Labour before an election due by June, with the party trailing in opinion polls after 13 years in power.
Under close questioning from the five-member panel, Blair, 56, was unrepentant over the stand he took with then U.S. President George W. Bush.
Dressed in a dark blue suit and red tie, Blair began by explaining how his and the U.S. view of Iraq dramatically changed after the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
No evidence has emerged to link Iraq with 9/11, but Blair said the attacks on the United States had changed the “calculus of risk”.
“Up to Sept. 11, we thought he (Saddam) was a risk but we thought it was worth trying to contain it,” Blair 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.”
Blair said he was concerned that the risk remained today, referring repeatedly to concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Critics have long argued that Blair promised Bush in April 2002 that Britain would support military action to get rid of Saddam, and later arguments about WMD were designed to fit this objective. “The only commitment I gave, and gave openly, was a commitment to deal with Saddam,” he said. “The fact is, it was an appalling regime and we couldn’t run the risk of such a regime being allowed to develop WMD. If we tried the U.N. route and that failed, my view was it had to be dealt with.”
Blair defended the war’s legality, relying on the green light the government’s top lawyer gave only days before the conflict, and saying a second U.N. resolution had only been desirable from a political, not legal perspective. But he said the post-war planning had been flawed. “The planning assumption that … everybody made was that there would be a functioning civil service. Contrary to what we thought … we found a completely broken system,” he said.
“People did not think that al Qaeda and Iran would play the role that they did. It was the introduction of the external elements of AQ and Iran that really caused this mission very nearly to fail. Fortunately in the end it didn’t.”
Relatives of some of the 179 British soldiers killed in Iraq joined protesters outside the inquiry venue opposite parliament. They were held back by a large police presence.
“The real question Tony Blair needs to answer in the end will be at The Hague and before a war crimes tribunal,” said Andrew Murray, chairman of Stop the War Coalition.