Tony Blair tells Iraq Inquiry he would invade again

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Friday, January 29, 2010

2007 file photo of Tony Blair.
Image: Gryffindor.

Tony Blair, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, appeared before the Iraq Inquiry today. He faced six hours of questioning, starting at 6:30 am, at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London concerning his role in the 2003 Iraq invasion. During the inquiry, Blair stood by his decision to invade, saying he would make the same decision again.

This is the third time Blair has given evidence at an inquiry into the Iraq War, having already testified before the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Review, as well as participating in an investigation by the Intelligence and Security Committee. The Hutton Inquiry found that the government did not "sex up" the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The Butler Review uncovered "serious flaws" in pre-war intelligence, and this inquiry was set up by current prime minister Gordon Brown in order to "learn the lessons" of the war. Sir John Chilcott, the inquiry chairman, began by stressing that Blair was not "on trial", but could be called back to give further evidence if necessary.

At the end of the session, Chilcott asked Blair if he had any regrets, to which Blair replied that he was "sorry" that it was "divisive", but said that invading was the right thing to do since he believes "the world is a safer place as a result." Blair said that the inquiry should ask the "2010 question", which refers to the hypothetical position that the world would be in if Saddam Hussein were not removed from power. He said that "today we would have a situation where Iraq was competing with Iran [...] in respect of support of terrorist groups".

Reasons for invasion

At the inquiry, the topics on which Blair was questioned included his reasons for invading Iraq.

At the time, he said that his reasons were based on a need to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction; however, interviews held later suggest that removing Saddam Hussein from power was his primary objective. Blair denies this, asserting that the need to dispose of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was the only reason for the United Kingdom's participation in the invasion. He explained that, in an interview with Fern Britton, he "did not use the words regime change", and, what he was trying to say was, "you would not describe the nature of the threat in the same way if you knew then what you knew now, that the intelligence on WMD had been shown to be wrong".

He said, despite no weapons of mass destruction being found by UN weapons inspectors, he still believes that Saddam Hussein had the means to develop and deploy them; "[h]e had used them, he definitely had them [...] and so in a sense it would have required quite strong evidence the other way to be doubting the fact that he had this programme [...] The primary consideration for me was to send an absolutely powerful, clear and unremitting message that after September 11 if you were a regime engaged in WMD [weapons of mass destruction], you had to stop."

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He also said that weapons of mass destruction and regime change were not separate issues, but "conjoined", since "brutal and oppressive" regimes with such weapons are a "bigger threat" than less hostile nations with the same weapons. He said that Hussein's regime was hiding important information from UN weapons inspectors, and had "no intention" of complying with them. He asserted that he has "no regrets" about removing Hussein, "[a] monster and I believe he threatened not just the region but the world."

There were also questions about why the UN weapons inspectors were not given more time in Iraq in March 2003. Blair responded by saying that it would have made very little difference, as Iraq had the knowledge and "intent" to rebuild its weapons program from scratch if it were dismantled. He was also asked whether he still believed that the war was morally justified. He said that he did. He also said that the war was required because more diplomatic solutions had already failed, and the "containment" of Hussein's regime through diplomatic sanctions was "eroding" when the decision to invade was made.

Cquote1.svg I never regarded 11 September as an attack on America, I regarded it as an attack on us. Cquote2.svg

—Tony Blair

He also said that attitudes towards Saddam Hussein and the threat he presented "changed dramatically" after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. He said, "I never regarded 11 September as an attack on America, I regarded it as an attack on us." He said that he believed terrorists would use biological and chemical weaponry, and also said, "if those people inspired by this religious fanaticism could have killed 30,000 they would have. My view was you could not take risks with this issue at all."

He later said, "When I talked earlier about the calculus of risk changing after September 11 it's really important I think to understand in so far as to understanding the decision I took, and frankly would take again. If there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction we should stop him. That was my view then. It's my view now."

Crawford commitment

He was also asked about his supposed commitment to George W. Bush that United Kingdom would join the United States in an Iraq war, which he is said to have made at Bush's Crawford ranch in 2002. Blair stubbornly denied that this took place, saying that what was said is that Saddam Hussein had to be "dealt with", and that "the method of doing that is open". Instead, he says, his reasons for the invasion were moral.

Cquote1.svg The decision I had to take was ... could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons programme? Cquote2.svg

—Tony Blair

He also said, "This isn't about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception. It's a decision. And the decision I had to take was, given Saddam's history, given his use of chemical weapons, given the over one million people whose deaths he had caused, given 10 years of breaking UN resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons programmes or is that a risk that it would be irresponsible to take?"

He said of Bush: "I think what he took from that [the meeting] was exactly what he should have taken, which was if it came to military action because there was no way of dealing with this diplomatically, we would be with him." He did admit, however, that—a year later, as the invasion approached—he had been offered a "way out" of the war, which he declined. He said of this, "I think President Bush at one point said, before the [House of Commons] debate, 'Look if it's too difficult for Britain, we understand'. I took the view very strongly then—and do now—that it was right for us to be with America, since we believed in this too."

The 45-minute claim

Another line of questioning focused on his 45-minute claim, which was included in the September 2002 dossier but redacted after the war. It states that Hussein was able to deploy nuclear weapons within 45 minutes of giving the order. This dossier also contained the words, "the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons". However, the inquiry has revealed that there were certain caveats involved, so the claim was not—anti-war campaigners claim—"beyond doubt", especially since senior civil servants have told the inquiry that intelligence suggested that Hussein's weapons of mass destruction had been dismantled.

Blair said that it "would have been better if (newspaper) headlines about the '45-minute claim' had been corrected" to state—as he admits he should have made clear—that the claim referred to battlefield munitions, rather than to missiles. He says that, with the benefit of hindsight, he would have liked to have published the intelligence reports themselves, since they were "absolutely strong enough". He did insist, however, that the intelligence that was available at the time put it "beyond doubt" that Iraq was continuing to develop weaponry. He added that "things obviously look quite different" after the war, since weapons of mass destruction were not found.

Legality and planning

File photo of Lord Goldsmith, who told the inquiry earlier this week that he changed his mind about the legality of the war.
Image: Johnnyryan1.

One of the main topics was the legality of the war. Earlier this week, a senior Foreign Office legal advisor claimed that the war would be illegal without a further United Nations Security Council resolution—which was not obtained. The attorney general at the time, Lord Peter Goldsmith, said that the cabinet refused to enter into a debate over the legality of the war, and that Blair had not received his advice that a further UN resolution would be needed warmly. He insists that he "desperately" tried to find a diplomatic solution to the problem until France and Russia "changed their position" and would not allow the passage of a further resolution.

Blair also said that he would not have invaded had Goldsmith said that it "could not be justified legally", and explained Goldsmith's change of mind by saying that the then attorney general "had to come to a conclusion", and his conclusion was that the war was legal. He did not know why Goldsmith made this conclusion, but said he believes that it may be due to the fact that weapons inspectors "indicated that Saddam Hussein had not taken a final opportunity to comply" with the UN.

Questions were also asked on the government's poor post-war planning, and claimed confusion about whether the US had a plan for Iraq after the war was over. Blair was drilled about the lack of priority that was given to the issue of post-war planning. He was also asked about the lack of equipment that British soldiers were given. This line of questioning was pursued in front of the families of some of the soldiers who died in Iraq—many of whom blame the poor equipment for the deaths of their relatives.


Wikinews commentary.svg
Should Tony Blair be considered a war criminal?

The families of some of the 179 British soldiers killed in the Iraq war, along with around 200 anti-war protesters, held a demonstration calling for Blair to be declared a war criminal outside the centre in London's City of Westminster. They chanted "Tony Blair, war criminal" as the former prime minister gave evidence inside. Blair was jeered by a member of the audience as he made his closing statement, and the families booed him, chanting "you are a liar" and "you are a murderer" as he left the centre.

In order to avoid the protesters, he arrived early and was escorted by security as he entered through the back door, with large numbers of police officers standing by. One of these protesters, Iraqi Saba Jaiwad, said, "The Iraqi people are having to live every day with aggression, division, and atrocities. Blair should not be here giving his excuses for the illegal war, he should be taken to The Hague to face criminal charges because he has committed crimes against the Iraqi people."

Ahmed Rushdi, an Iraqi journalist, said that he was unsurprised by Blair's defence of the invasion, because, "A liar is still a liar". He also claimed that the war had done more harm than good, because, "Before 2003 there were problems with security, infrastructure and services, and people died because of the sanctions, but after 2003 there are major disasters. Major blasts have killed about 2,000 people up till now. After six years or seven years there is no success on the ground, in any aspect."

Cquote1.svg Why did we participate in an illegal invasion of another country? Cquote2.svg

—Nick Clegg

Current prime minister Gordon Brown, who set up the inquiry, said before Blair's appearance that it was not a cause for concern. Anthony Seldon, Blair's biographer, called the session "a pivotal day for him [Blair], for the British public and for Britain's moral authority in the world". Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who opposes the war, said in Friday's Daily Telegraph that it was "a pivotal moment in answering a question millions of British people are still asking themselves: Why did we participate in an illegal invasion of another country?" He called the invasion "subservience-by-default to the White House", and questioned the "special relationship" between between the United Kingdom and the United States.

Vincent Moss, the political editor of the Sunday Mirror newspaper, criticised the inquiry for being too soft on Blair. He said, "A lot of ground wasn't covered, and in my mind it wasn't covered in enough detail, particularly the dodgy dossier in September 2002. There wasn't very much interrogation on that, they pretty much accepted what Tony Blair said about the intelligence. We could have had an awful lot stronger questioning on that".

It is feared by some senior Labour Party politicians that today's events could ignite strong feelings about the issue in voters, and thereby damage the popularity of the party, which is already trailing behind the Conservative Party with a general election required in the first half of the year.

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