Tony Blair proud of his Iraq role

Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Monday he was proud of his role in overthrowing Saddam Hussein and defended his government’s intelligence briefings in the build-up to war.

Blair, speaking at a news conference at the end of a two-day summit of 14 centre-left leaders, did not directly respond to a question on whether he stood by British intelligence officials’ claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Niger.

The Niger connection has recently come under scrutiny in the United States.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, US President George Bush’s national security adviser, said the United States and Britain have intelligence that supports the allegation that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa.

However, both have said the intelligence was not strong enough to have merited mention in one of the president’s speeches.

Although not directly mentioning the Niger claim, Blair said he “stood entirely by the intelligence that we gave and shared with the public.”

“When we have over the past couple of days taken the first steps for Iraqi people actually to take control of their own lives and we have the United Nations talking about 300 000 people and mass graves, then I believe we should be proud that Saddam has gone, glad that he has gone,” he added.

“I have no doubt at all that in the future, whatever the differences have been in the past, we can reconstruct Iraq as a stable and prosperous country and the world will be a more secure place as a result.

“We should be proud as a country of what we have done.”

Earlier, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Monday rejected calls for an independent judicial inquiry into the government’s handling of intelligence on Iraqi weapons, saying a parliamentary committee appointed by Blair was the appropriate body for the job.

The Intelligence and Security Committee conducts its business in private and its reports are handed to the prime minister before being shown to Parliament. The committee, which draws its nine members from the House of Commons and the House of Lords, has said it will probe the government’s use of intelligence in making the case for military action in Iraq.

Straw said the committee was “very independent minded” and claimed a judicial probe would take too long. Another parliamentary committee, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, last week said the “jury is still out” on government claims that Iraq possessed banned weapons. - Sapa-AP

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