LONDON, Jan 21 (Reuters) – Britain’s former foreign minister said on Thursday he deeply regretted the loss of life in Iraq but defended his decision to back the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Jack Straw, a mainstay of Labour governments since 1997, said that British involvement in the war would have been impossible had he decided to oppose it, such were the divisions in the centre-left party and the government. “I believed at the time, and I still believe, that we made the best judgements we could have done in the circumstances,” Straw wrote in a submission to a public inquiry into the conflict.
“We did so assiduously and on the best evidence we had available at the time,” added Straw in a lengthy statement issued before he appeared before the five-person inquiry.
Straw, who is now justice secretary, served as foreign secretary under Prime Minister Tony Blair between 2001-2006.
Straw said he had never wanted war and described the decision to go to war in the face of mass public protests as one of the most divisive of his political lifetime. He conceded that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had undermined trust. “Above all, there has been the grave loss of life – of our military personnel and civilians, others in the coalition, and many thousands of Iraqis. I deeply regret this.”
Prime Minister Gordon Brown set up the Iraq inquiry, chaired by former civil servant John Chilcot, last year to learn lessons from the conflict following the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq.
Some Labour figures say it could backfire by bringing a divisive issue back into the public arena ahead of an election to be held by June and which the opposition Conservatives are expected to win.
Brown was finance minister under Blair and has faced criticism for decisions on defence spending which critics say have hampered British operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is not expected to appear before the inquiry until after the election.
Many Labour supporters remain angry with former Prime Minister Blair for supporting U.S. President George W. Bush and leading the country into a war and occupation in which 179 British soldiers were killed. Blair will appear before the inquiry on Jan. 29.
Straw defended the close personal relationship between Blair and Bush, which Blair’s detractors said turned Britain into a U.S. poodle.
Straw said Blair had to build up close ties with Bush, who was suspicious of a left-leaning leader who had worked closely with his predecessor Bill Clinton.
“I don’t think you can criticise Tony Blair for trying to work out where this chap (Bush) was coming from and trying to get alongside him,” Straw told the inquiry.