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Friday 9 December 2016

Defiant Blair: 'I can look nation in the eye'

Gordon Rayner, Steven Swinford and Peter Dominiczak

Published 07/07/2016 | 02:30

A US soldier watching as a statue of Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad's Firdaus Square in April 2003 Photo: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files
A US soldier watching as a statue of Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad's Firdaus Square in April 2003 Photo: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files

They were six words that put Britain on a path to war in Iraq: 'I will be with you, whatever'.

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Prime minister Tony Blair's private vow to support US president George W Bush, contained in a letter in 2002, ultimately led to the deaths of 179 British troops and countless Iraqi civilians in a war that the Chilcot Report yesterday concluded had been unnecessary and had gone "badly wrong".

That was despite the fact that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, posed "no imminent threat" and could have been "contained" through United Nations inspections and monitoring.

And other letters that became public for the first time yesterday showed that, just two months after sending British soldiers into battle, Mr Blair had doubts about the venture.

But last night, a defiant Tony Blair insisted he would "take the same decision" again in leading Britain to war in Iraq.

The former prime minister expressed his "sorrow, regret and apology" for the "failures" in Iraq - where 179 British personnel died - but said he "stood by" his chosen path.

"If I was back in the same place with the same information, I would take the same decision," he said.

"I can look not just at the families of this country, but the nation in the eye, and say I did not mislead this country. I made the decision in good faith on the information I had at the time."

Families of the dead described Mr Blair as "the world's worst terrorist" and threatened legal action after the Iraq inquiry said Britain went to war on the basis of "flawed" intelligence with a "wholly inadequate" plan that went "badly wrong".

Mr Blair was criticised in the report for presenting intelligence about the threat posed by Iraq with "a certainty that was not justified".

John Chilcot, the inquiry chairman and author of yesterday's 2.6 million-word report, also said Britain had joined the US-led invasion in 2003 "before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted".

He said: "Military action at that time was not a last resort."

Mr Chilcot's inquiry, which was originally meant to last a year but ended up taking longer to complete than the six years British forces spent in Iraq, said the intervention had ended "a very long way from success", with the "humiliating" reality of Britain agreeing to release prisoners to persuade local militia not to attack its troops.

Explosive

British soldiers were sent to war poorly equipped by a Ministry of Defence that was "slow in responding" to the threat of improvised explosive devices, said the report.

Mr Chilcot passed no judgment on whether the war had been legal, saying only an internationally recognised court could decide that, but said the Blair government's decision-making over the legality of the war was "far from satisfactory".

At an emotional news conference, in which Mr Blair's voice frequently faltered, he acknowledged that some of the families of the dead could "never forget or forgive" him for what happened.

He accepted the report contained "serious criticisms", but insisted it showed parliament was not misled, there was no secret commitment to war, intelligence was not falsified and the decision was made in "good faith".

"I took it, I accept full responsibility for it, I stand by it. I only ask with humility that the British people accept that I took this decision because I believed that it was the right thing to do based on the information that I had."

He added: "The intelligence assessments made at the time of going to war turned out to be wrong, the aftermath turned out to be more hostile, protracted and bloody than we ever imagined. The coalition planned for one set of ground facts and encountered another," he said.

"And a nation whose people we wanted to set free and secure from the evil of Saddam became instead the victim of sectarian terrorism.

"For all of this, I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe."

But he added: "The world was - and is - in my judgment, a better place without Saddam Hussein."

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, described the war as "an act of military aggression launched on a false pretext".

He said: "I apologise sincerely on behalf of my party for the disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq."

David Cameron, who voted for the war in 2003, declined to criticise Mr Blair personally.

The report cleared Mr Blair and his former communications director Alastair Campbell of claims made by the BBC that they had "sexed up" the intelligence dossier on Saddam's weapons capability to help make the case for war.

Mr Bush's spokesman, Freddy Ford, said the former president had not read the report as he was hosting an event at his ranch.

He said that Mr Bush "continues to believe the whole world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power" and believed "there was no stronger ally than the United Kingdom under the leadership of prime minister Tony Blair".

Telegraph.co.uk

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