Blair 'regrets' Iraq war dead

Former British PM's remarks on loss of life due to the 2003 invasion met with cries of "too late" from public gallery.

    Opponents of the Iraq invasion accuse Blair and Bush of being set on war regardless of its legality [EPA]

    Tony Blair has told an inquiry into Britain's role in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that he profoundly regretted the loss of life in the conflict.

    His remarks to the inquiry - the second time the former British prime minister has appeared before the investigation - sparked angry shouts of "too late" from dead soldiers' families attending the proceedings in London.

    Blair said that his comments at his first hearing last year when he said that he had "no regret" had been misunderstood.

    "That was taken as my meaning that I had no regrets about the loss of life and that was never my meaning or my intention," he said.

    "I wanted to make that clear that of course I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life, whether from our own armed forces, those of other nations, the civilians who helped people in Iraq or the Iraqis themselves."

    His words sparked an angry response from the packed public gallery, where a number of relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq were sitting. Blair sent 45,000 British troops as part of the US-led invasion in March 2003.

    Several shouted out that his words were "too late" and two women stood up, deliberately turning their backs to Blair, before they were asked to be quiet.

    "Your lies killed my son, I hope you can live with yourself," shouted Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in 2006 while serving in Basra, southern Iraq, as Blair left the hearing.

    'Questions to answer'

    Outside the central London venue, dozens of anti-war demonstrators gathered held up banners calling Blair a liar and chanting "Tony Blair to The Hague," where war crimes tribunals are held.

    Alan Fisher, Al Jazeera's correspondent at the inquiry, said: "This hearing was all about nailing down some specific points after Tony Blair's initial evidence more than a year ago.

    "Really it was about looking at the legality of going into Iraq without a second UN resolution.

    "Tony Blair admitted his senior law officer had said it probably would be against the law to do that, but he [Blair] took a political position.

    "Also we heard that after 9/11 Tony Blair decided there and then that if the Americans were intent on regime change in Iraq, then he would stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

    "It's expected the report [of the inquiry] will be published in a few months ... but for Tony Blair there are many people who believe he still has questions to answer."

    Bush pledge

    Earlier, Blair told the inquiry that he had privately assured George Bush, the US president at the time, that "you can count on us", eight months before the invasion.

    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 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 January 2010 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 9/11 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.

    He said 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.

    Controversial episode

    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.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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