/ 21 January 2011

Blair defends actions in new Iraq inquiry grilling

Blair Defends Actions In New Iraq Inquiry Grilling

Tony Blair said on Friday he was determined to do whatever it took to disarm Saddam Hussein despite legal concerns, as he returned for a second appearance at Britain’s inquiry into the Iraq conflict.

The former prime minister has been recalled to explain discrepancies in the evidence he gave one year ago when he first attended the inquiry into the United States-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In a written statement submitted to the inquiry, Blair said he had given former US president George Bush a “strong commitment” in January 2003 that Britain would do “what it took” to disarm Saddam, despite the legal concerns.

He conceded he received advice from then-Attorney General Peter Goldsmith on January 14 and January 30 2003 suggesting that a further UN resolution was required for military action to be legal, but said this was “provisional”.

“In speaking to president Bush on January 31 2003 I was not going to go into this continuing legal debate, internal to the UK government,” Blair wrote in his statement. “I repeated my strong commitment, given publicly and privately, to do what it took to disarm Saddam.”

He noted that Goldsmith, the government’s top legal adviser, changed his mind, adding that if he had not, “then the UK could not and would not have participated in the decision to remove Saddam”.

Summing up, Blair added: “In the end there was a decision that had to be made: on the basis of the information available, to decide whether to join the US coalition and remove Saddam, or to stay out. I decided we should stay in.”

About 20 protesters holding up signs saying “Bliar” rallied outside the London conference centre where the inquiry is being held as the ex-premier arrived amid heavy security and a large police presence.

Documents released ahead of the resumption of public proceedings, following a six-month break, showed Goldsmith criticised Blair for publicly suggesting Britain could invade without further UN backing, despite his advice to the contrary.

Goldsmith was “uncomfortable” with statements Blair made before the invasion.

In January 2003, Goldsmith advised Blair that the existing UN Security Council resolution was not enough to justify an invasion.

Blair is expected to be questioned on gaps in the evidence he gave in his first appearance and on apparent discrepancies between his account and official documents and other witnesses’ testimony.

Blair on Friday also defended his decision to refuse to release secret memos he wrote to Bush.

“The notes to president Bush were very private. They were written when I wished to get a change or adjustment to policy. They had to be confidential,” he said in the statement.

“The personal relationship was a vital part of the country’s strategic relationship.”

In his highly charged appearance before the inquiry last year, Blair said he had no regrets about the toppling of “monster” Saddam Hussein and delivered a robust defence of the invasion.

The inquiry, launched in July 2009, aims to identify lessons that can be learned from the conflict, to which Britain was the second largest contributor of troops.

Blair served as Labour prime minister from 1997 to 2007. — AFP