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British Prime Minister Tony Blair listens as United States President George W. Bush makes an announcement on the Iraq invasion on March 27, 2003.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair listens as United States President George W. Bush makes an announcement on the Iraq invasion on March 27, 2003.

Blair comes out swinging, 10 years after Iraq war

An unrepentant Tony Blair made sure he had the first word in the run-up to the 10th anniversary today of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Omar Karmi reports from London

LONDON // An unrepentant Tony Blair made sure he had the first word in the run-up to the 10th anniversary today of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Going to war was a difficult decision, the former British prime minister told the BBC on February 26. But it was the right thing to do, even if many did not agree with him.

And certainly, most people in Britain do not. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, the justification cited and its consequences remain deeply divisive issues in Britain.

In fact, more than a fifth of Mr Blair's countrymen want him tried for war crimes, a recent opinion poll showed.

Iraq has largely defined Mr Blair's 10-year premiership and made him one of the UK's most polarising figures.

"Most people in Britain think he lied to the country," said Clare Short, secretary of state for international development in Mr Blair's government until 2003, and a member of parliament until 2010.

Ms Short quit her position a few months after the invasion, for which she had voted. When she resigned, she accused Mr Blair of deceiving her and other MPs to get their support in parliament for the war.

She and other critics say Mr Blair duped legislators and the public by asserting that Iraq was pursuing a weapons programme that posed a threat to the region and farther afield.

And the decision to go to war "will be his legacy", Ms Short said recently. "That is what he will be remembered for."

Mr Blair says he is at peace with that. Yes, he conceded to the BBC, the decision remains controversial. Yes, life in Iraq today is still marred by sectarian violence and "immensely difficult".

Yes, the price in Iraqi and British lives was "very, very high" and there were no weapons of mass destruction, the main justification by the US and the UK for going to war.

But "think of the price people paid before Saddam was removed", Mr Blair said, listing the Iraq-Iran war, the use of chemical weapons by Iraq's military, and Iraqis "oppressed, deprived of their rights, tortured and killed on a daily basis".

"The answer is not to say to people 'I'm afraid we should have left Saddam in charge' because otherwise these sectarians would come in and try to destabilise the country," Mr Blair said.

"The answer is, get rid of the repressive dictatorship and then you have a long, hard struggle to push these sectarian elements out."

The problem with Mr Blair's latest defence of his decision to support the invasion is that it is sharply at odds with what he said at the time, said Saad Jawad, a senior visiting fellow at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics.

Saddam's alleged breach of UN sanctions on the development of weapons of mass destruction was the reason given for the invasion, not regime change, as Mr Blair made plain in a speech to the British parliament in October 2002.

"Of course I detest his regime. But even now [Hussein] can save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully," he said.

Mr Blair now is trying to justify a "grave mistake", said Mr Jawad. "He has to say something like this to justify his act."

A professor of political science at Baghdad University, Mr Jawad said he left Iraq in 2008 after seeing colleagues being assassinated or disappearing in the sectarian violence that followed the overthrow of the regime.

"The war destroyed a country that had a strong government and was a stable state," he said. "It left only chaos."

Ten years after the start of the invasion, how much the US and Britain truly believed Iraq was pursuing the weapons programme remains in question.

On Monday, the BBC's Panorama programme revealed what it said was evidence that British and US intelligence services had been told months before the invasion that Iraq had no active weapons of mass destruction.

Naji Sabri, Iraq's foreign minister at the time, and Tahir Al Takriti, Saddam's intelligence chief, are reported to have communicated these messages to the CIA in Paris and the MI6 in Amman.

The information, according to the BBC, was not passed on.

Supporters of Mr Blair's decision to order forces into Iraq say his choice must be understood against a broader background.

He took a "moral and political" stance consistent with his political beliefs in humanitarian intervention dating back to the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, said John Lloyd, contributing editor to the Financial Times.

The prime minister's genuine belief that Iraq was in breach of UN sanctions fuelled his determination to "make a legal case for war", said Lloyd, a former columnist for the New Statesman, which he left in 2003 because of its anti-war stance.

By reducing Mr Blair's support for the war to a single test - his assessment of Iraq's weapons capability - critics also unfairly caricature his position, Lloyd suggested.

"If you read through the speeches he gave a variety of reasons, one of which is very strongly that Saddam was a threat - at least to the region and possibly more widely - and that he was a danger to, and had been a mass murderer of, his own people."

Such scrutiny of Mr Blair's comments before the war so far have done little to improve his legacy.

Today, exactly half of the British population believe Mr Blair deliberately misled to country in the lead-up to the invasion, according to a March 14 YouGov poll.

Fifty-three per cent say it was the wrong decision, while only 27 per cent believe it was the right thing to do. Twenty-two per cent of Britons think he should stand trial for war crimes.

That is a significant number, said Lloyd. But he insisted that with "greater historical perspective", Mr Blair's legacy will not be defined by Iraq.

"I don't think many historians - even those who might be hostile or sceptical of him - will choose to see his premiership, which was a long one, through the prism only of Iraq."

Ms Short strongly disagreed. Mr Blair's legacy is the Iraq war, she said.

She said even though a war crimes case would never be brought, the fact that nearly a quarter of his own people want it would suggest that legacy is not a happy one.

"In the court of public opinion he will be on trial for the rest of his life."

okarmi@thenational.ae

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