x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Blair cites Arab Spring in defence of Iraq invasion

In his latest defence, the former UK PM asks television viewers to imagine the brutality Saddam Hussein would have used against an uprising. Omar Karmi reports from London

Tony Blair, left, meets Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last week. Kobi Gideon / EPA
Tony Blair, left, meets Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last week. Kobi Gideon / EPA

LONDON // Saddam Hussein's suppression of an Arab Spring uprising in Iraq would have been "20 times as bad" as Bashar Al Assad's attempts to crush the opposition in Syria, Tony Blair said in his latest defence of the 2003 Iraq invasion.

In an interview with the BBC ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, the former British prime minister conceded that his decision to go along with the US invasion remained "very divisive and very difficult". But he insisted that while the price of war had been "very, very high," the world was a better place for it.

"If we hadn't removed Saddam from power, just think, for example, what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now and Saddam, who's probably 20 times as bad as [Bashar Al] Assad in Syria, was trying to suppress an uprising in Iraq? Think of the consequences of leaving that regime in power," Mr Blair told BBC's Newsnight programme broadcast on Tuesday.

"So when you say 'do you think of the loss of life since 2003', of course I do, you would have to be inhumane not to, but think of what would have happened if he had been left there."

Saddam ruled Iraq for 24 years through a brutal police state. He unleashed wars against Iran and later Kuwait and ruthlessly suppressed a series of rebellions by Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south in 1991 after the Iraqi army had been driven from Kuwait by an international coalition of forces.

In 1988, in one of the most notorious incidents under his rule, the Iraqi military rained poison gas over the Kurdish village of Halabja, killing thousands.

The US-led invasion of Iraq, in coalition with the UK and other nations, began on March 20, 2003.

The exact number of Iraqis killed in the 2003 invasion and the sectarian war that followed is unknown. Conservative estimates put the figure at around 100,000 dead. The Iraq Body Count website puts the number of civilians alone killed since the invasion as high as 121,000.

Mr Blair conceded that life today in Iraq was "not nearly as it should be" and admitted that it would take "a generation" before Iraq was safer than before 2003.

"There are still terrorist activities that are killing innocent people for no good reason … People have deliberately tried to destabilise the country and this is the problem you've got all over the region."

The UK lost 179 soldiers before the last British troops were withdrawn in April 2009. The ramifications of their involvement in Iraq continue today, with allegations that the British army systematically abused and tortured Iraqi prisoners currently being considered by Britain's highest court.

Mr Blair, a lifelong member of his Labour Party's "Friends of Israel" group and now the Quartet's special envoy to the Middle East peace process, said the personal toll of the continuing criticism over his decision "didn't matter" and he wasn't bothered when people call him a war criminal.

"The fact is, yes, there are people who will be very abusive … In a sense what I try to persuade people of now is to understand how complex and difficult a decision it was."

okarmi@thenational.ae