Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will make a much-anticipated appearance before an official inquiry into the Iraq War on January 29.
Blair was premier when Britain sent 45 000 troops as part of the United States-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein seven years ago, despite mass protests on the streets of London.
It was one of his Labour government’s most unpopular decisions, with widespread doubts raised about its legality. Critics also accuse Blair of misleading the public over claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
The Chilcot Inquiry announced the date of Blair’s appearance on its website on Monday.
Such is the demand to see his performance that the inquiry will hold a ballot to allocate public seats, while a third of the 60 or so available spaces will be reserved for families of soldiers who died following the 2003 invasion.
Many Labour supporters remain angry with Blair for leading the country into a war and occupation in which 179 British soldiers were killed. Discontent was heightened when no WMDs were ever found.
Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, who was finance minister at the time of the war, is not due to appear at the inquiry until after parliamentary elections which must be held by June.
Brown set up the inquiry last year following the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Some Labour figures fear that it could damage the party in the election because it brings a divisive issue back into the public arena.
The five-man Chilcot team, which is examining Britain’s role before, during and after the conflict, can decide when to call witnesses, though it is not a trial. Its stated aim is to learn lessons from Britain’s involvement in the war.
Blair, who will spend an entire day answering questions, told a BBC interview last month that he believed it would still have been right to oust Saddam even if he had known Iraq had no WMDs.
Blair, who was prime minister from 1997 to 2007, had cited other reasons, including the threat Saddam posed to the region, 12 years of stalling United Nations weapons inspectors and Saddam’s use of chemical weapons on his own people.
Last week, Blair’s former communications chief, Alastair Campbell, told the inquiry that the prime minister had assured then-US president George Bush in 2002 Britain would back military action if diplomatic efforts to disarm Saddam failed.
“I think the prime minister was, all the way through this, trying to get it resolved without a single shot being fired,” Campbell said.
The inquiry, which has faced accusations of being too soft on witnesses and that the outcome would be a whitewash, has also heard from senior civil servants and military figures. — Reuters