|Hostility over Iraq continues to dog Blair [EPA]
Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, has told an inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq that he privately assured George Bush, the US president at the time, that "you can count on us", eight months before the war.
While Blair stopped short of saying he had promised Bush unconditional military support in early 2002, as critics claim, he said he had always agreed that Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader, had to be dealt with.
"I accept entirely I was going to be with America in handling this," he told the London inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war, describing conversations between himself and Bush in summer 2002.
"What I was saying to President Bush was very clear and simple, you can count on us, we are going to be with you in tackling this. But there are difficulties."
The private note to BUsh remain secrets, despite calls for it to be published by John Chilcot, the inquiry chairman and a former civil servant.
'Up for it'
The timing of the decision for military action is an important issue for opponents of the war, who accuse Blair and Bush of being set on invasion regardless of its legality or whether it had backing from the UN.
Blair, who sent 45,000 British troops as part of the US-led invasion in March 2003, was making his second appearance at the inquiry after being recalled to clarify evidence he gave at a hearing in January last year.
He repeated his message from his first appearance that the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US had changed the calculus of risk, meaning they had to deal with Saddam as he posed a threat to the world and was refusing to comply with the UN.
Facing a far more forensic probe of decisions he had taken, Blair said regime change in Iraq was on the cards immediately after the September 11 attacks unless Saddam changed tack.
"If it became the only way to deal with this issue then we were going to be up for it," Blair said, adding he had persuaded Bush to seek UN backing.
A statement he gave to the inquiry also revealed he had disregarded advice from the government's top lawyer, given in January 2003, warning an invasion of Iraq would be illegal without a specific UN resolution.
Peter Goldsmith, the attorney general, only changed his mind shortly before the invasion, and Blair said he viewed the earlier advice as "provisional" and believed it would change when Goldsmith became aware of the UN negotiations.
The decision to go to war was one of the most controversial episodes of Blair's 10-year premiership which ended in 2007, leading to massive protests and accusations he had deliberately misled the public over the reasons for the invasion.
Alistair Campbell, Blair's former communications chief and one of his closest advisers until he resigned in late 2003, said people still felt angry about the war.
"Some people who actually really liked Tony Blair when he became prime minister ... they will never forgive him for Iraq," he told Sky News.
The inquiry, which began in November 2009, was set up by Blair's successor Gordon Brown to learn lessons from the conflict and is not designed to assign guilt or blame to any individual.
Hostility over Iraq continues to dog Blair, 57, now an envoy for the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers - the US, Russia, the European Union and the UN.
About 50 anti-war protesters demonstrated outside the inquiry's venue near parliament in central London, chanting "Blair lies, thousands die".