Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that his view remains unchanged about the invasion of Iraq and he would take the same decision again.
Blair made the comments in his evidence to the Iraq War Inquiry in central London this morning (29 January). He said he had decided at the time that “if there was any possibility that he [Saddam Hussein] could develop weapons of mass destruction, we should stop him”.
He added, “That was my view. That was my view then and that’s my view now”.
He also insisted that if Saddam had been left in power, it would be likely that he would by now have developed a “nuclear and chemical weapon programme”.
Hundreds of demonstrators have gathered outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, where the questioning is taking place. Their chants have been audible inside the inquiry at various points during the morning.
The former Prime Minister will have faced six hours of questioning by the time he leaves the Inquiry at around 5.00pm today.
Blair caused surprise by citing the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre as justification for the invasion of Iraq. His remarks contradict the long held understanding that the Iraqi dictator had no real links with the Al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked the United States on 11 September 2001.
“Up to September 11th, we thought it [Iraq] was a risk, but we thought it was worth trying to contain it,” said Blair, “After September 11th, the calculus of risk changed”.
When panel member Roderick Lyne asked if Saddam Hussein had become more of a risk after 2001, Blair admitted, “It wasn’t that objectively he had done more, it was that our perception of the risk had shifted”.
Blair, who has appeared uncharacteristically nervous all morning, added that “I never regarded September 11th as an attack on America. I regarded it as an attack on us.”
At the most surprising moment, he said that he was “always worried” about Saddam linking up with Al Qaeda.
Speaking of his fear of a “proliferation threat”, he said that he now regards Iranian nuclear ambitions as a threat. He repeatedly compared Iran today to the situation of Iraq in the run-up to the war.
But Blair lost his usual calm and became flustered as he attempted to defend his comments in a recent interview on daytime television. He had said that he would have wanted to remove Saddam Hussein even if he had known that the dictator possessed no weapons of mass destruction.
Given the legal advice that regime change would not be a valid reason for war, Blair struggled to defend the remark this morning, saying, “with all my experience with dealing with interviews, it indicates that I’ve still got something to learn about them”.
Stumbling over his words, he sought to explain his comment by suggesting that he meant, “you couldn’t describe the nature of the threat in the same way if you knew then what you know now”.
The panel confronted Blair with the accusation that he had promised to join the US in military action at the now infamous “Crawford meeting” with the then US President George Bush in 2002.
He insisted that “nothing was actually decided” at Crawford, before adding “the only commitment I gave, and I gave this very openly at the meeting, was a commitment to deal with Saddam”. He said that the means for doing so were not agreed.
Blair became emotional as he defended his attitude to the UK’s relationship with the USA. “It is an alliance, and it is an alliance I say to you very openly, I believe in passionately” he said.
The panel challenged the former prime minister on the “intelligence dossier” of September 2002, in which it was claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed within 45 minutes.
Blair admitted that the weapons were battlefield artillery, not long-range missiles. The same point has already been made to the inquiry by Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, as well as by Geoff Hoon, who was the Defence Secretary.
When asked if he had understood the distinction at the time, Blair claimed “I didn’t focus on it”.
The panel looked surprised when Blair suggested that the 45-minute claim had “taken on far greater significance than it ever did at the time". Lyne pointed out that it had formed front-page headlines in at least two national newspapers.
Earlier, Blair admitted that he had been warned before the war that Iraq could face a “humanitarian catastrophe” after the invasion, but was only advised some time later about the likely effects on the relationship between Sunni and Shia Iraqis.
Demonstrators gathered outside include peace organisations, faith-based activists and left-wing groups.
Anti-war activist Patrick Ward, who arrived outside the Centre before the hearing began, told Ekklesia that “Tony Blair needs to be put on trial and held to account for a war that couldn’t have happened without him”.
He added, “How someone can rest easy with his conscience with the deaths of perhaps a million people on his hands is beyond me”.
The panel have indicated that they will come to the question of the war’s legality, at some length, later in the day.