The former British prime minister said before September 11 he thought “Saddam was a menace, that he was a threat, he was a monster, but we would have to try and make the best of it”.
The attacks on New York and Washington changed everything, he said. “After that time, my view was you could not take risks with this issue at all,” he said.
The Chilcot Inquiry is Britain’s third and widest-ranging investigation of the conflict, which triggered huge protests and left 179 British troops dead. The British military withdrew from Iraq last year.
It is not intended to apportion blame or hold anyone liable for the conflict. But it could embarrass American and British officials who argued – wrongly – the war was justified because Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and building ties with al-Qaida. Blair appeared sombre as he began his scheduled six hours of testimony. He grew feistier as the day went on, gesturing, smiling and, at times, correcting what he saw as the flawed questions of panel members. The audience in the hearing room included family members of soldiers and civilians killed or missing in Iraq – all of whom sat quietly as he testified.
Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in Iraq in 2004, said she felt revulsion at Blair’s presence. “Actually, I felt sick,” she said. “He seemed to be shaking as well, which I am pleased about – the eyes of all the families were on him.” Emotions also ran high outside, where demonstrators chanted and read the names of civilians and military personnel killed. Some 150 protesters shouted “Jail Tony” and “Blair lied – thousands died”, as police officers looked on.
The five-member panel pressed Blair on when exactly he offered US president George W Bush support for an invasion. Earlier witnesses claimed he promised it in 2002, more than a year before Britain’s parliament approved military action. Former British ambassador to Washington Christopher Meyer told an earlier hearing that an agreement had been “signed in blood” by Bush and Blair during a meeting at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002.
“The only commitment I gave – and I gave this very openly at the time – was a commitment to deal with Saddam,” Blair said. He said military options were discussed, but said he told Bush that Britain wanted to exhaust diplomatic routes before an invasion was considered. Blair said he had not been determined from the outset to remove Saddam Hussein. “The absolutely key issue was the WMD issue,” not regime change. But he added that “if necessary – and there was no other way of dealing with this threat – we were going to remove him”.
Blair said other world leaders did not share his and Bush’s enthusiasm for confronting the WMD threat, even after September 11. “Although the American mindset had changed dramatically – and frankly mine had as well – when I talked to other leaders, particularly in Europe, I didn’t get the same impression.”
Blair acknowledged the decision to join the war – which led to the largest public protests in a generation in London – had met with opposition in the country and in his cabinet.
“The one thing I found throughout this whole matter from a very early stage is that I was never short of people challenging me on it,” Blair told the panel.
Blair also insisted there had been extensive preparations for the aftermath of the Iraq war. But he accepted there had been a failure to predict the role played by al-Qaida and Iran in fomenting the insurgency which broke out.
“People didn’t think al-Qaida and Iran would play the role that they did. It was really the external elements of al Qaida and Iran that really caused this mission very nearly to fail.”
The former British leader arrived at the conference centre in darkness shortly before 7am yesterday, dodging demonstrators by entering the conference centre through a cordoned-off rear entrance. Protest organisers said they were “appalled” at the way Blair had “sneaked” into the inquiry.
Andrew Murray, chairman of the anti-war group Stop The War Coalition, said: “This cowardly and deceitful entrance is typical of how the former prime minister sold the war to the country – behind the backs of the public.”
Protester Saba Jaiwad, an Iraqi who opposed the war, said: “Blair should not be here giving his excuses for the illegal war, he should be taken to The Hague to face criminal charges because he has committed crimes against the Iraqi people.”
Defending his stance, Blair also repeatedly warned that modern leaders must soon take similar tough choices to deal with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“I hold this fear stronger today than I did back then because of what Iran is doing,” Blair told the inquiry.
“A large part of the destabilisation in the Middle East today comes from Iran.”