Anger as Tony Blair admits regrets over Iraq
Tony Blair was barracked today as he expressed regret for the loss of life in the Iraq War.
The former prime minister told the official inquiry into the conflict that he regretted “deeply and profoundly” the deaths of British troops and Iraqi civilians.
Members of the audience watching him give evidence jeered at his comments, with one person shouting: “It’s too late.”
Mr Blair sparked anger among the families of the 179 UK personnel killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 when he insisted he had no regrets about the war at the end of his first appearance before the inquiry last year.
His voice cracking with emotion, he told the inquiry panel today: “At the conclusion of the last hearing, you asked me whether I had any regrets.
“I took that as a question about the decision to go to war, and I answered that I took responsibility.
“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.
“I wanted to make it 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.”
As he expressed regret for the loss of life, the public gallery grew restless.
“Too late,” cried Rose Gentle, the mother of Fusilier Gordon Gentle, who died in Basra aged 19 in 2004.
Others in the room echoed her cry. “You’ve had years,” shouted one.
Meanwhile, two women stood and turned their back as Mr Blair began his closing remarks.
A few seconds into his comments, they walked out. Other relatives were openly crying in the public gallery.
Mr Blair left without glancing towards them.
“Your lies killed my son,” Mrs Gentle shouted as the former prime minister walked towards the exit. “I hope you can live with it.”
Speaking afterwards, Mrs Gentle said there was nothing Mr Blair could have said to alleviate her anger.
“It is six years too late,” she said. “I would have liked him to stand up and say he made a mistake.”
Reg Keys, whose son, Lance Corporal Tom Keys, 20, was killed by a mob in southern Iraq in June 2003, said he did not think Mr Blair had been held to account during the session.
“He is the consummate performer at dealing with these situations,” he said.
“He was trying to blame al Qaida and 9/11, but we all know Iraq had nothing to do with the attack.
“I thought Blair came across as very naive, so naive that he didn’t know he would create a power vacuum in Iraq.
“I do not think he has been held to account. But he has done his reputation no good.”
In his evidence Mr Blair said he had always made clear to US president George Bush that he would be “up for” regime change in Iraq if it was the only way of dealing with Saddam Hussein.
He acknowledged that he had discussed ousting Saddam with Mr Bush as early as December 2001 – even though it was not then British policy.
The inquiry released a newly declassified document from March 2002 – a year before the invasion – in which Mr Blair said the UK should be “gung ho” about the prospect of getting rid of the Iraqi dictator.
Mr Blair said that, while he made clear that he would always stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the Americans, he had also succeeded in persuading the US leader to go down the “UN route” first.
He said regime change in Baghdad had always been “on the agenda” for Washington after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and acknowledged that it came up when he spoke to Mr Bush by telephone on December 3 that year.
Mr Blair told the inquiry: “Regime change was their policy so regime change was part of the discussion. If it became the only way of dealing with this issue, we were going to be up for that.”
The inquiry also released a note from Mr Blair to his chief of staff Jonathan Powell, shortly before his visit to Mr Bush at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, in which he argued that Labour should be “gung ho” about dealing with Saddam.
He said that, from “a centre-left perspective”, the case for action against the Iraqi dictator should be “obvious”.
“Saddam’s regime is a brutal, oppressive military dictatorship. He kills his opponents, has wrecked his country’s economy and is a source of instability and danger in the region,” he wrote.
“I can understand a right-wing Tory opposed to ‘nation-building’ being opposed to it on grounds it hasn’t any direct bearing on our national interest. But in fact a political philosophy that does care about other nations – e.g. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone – and is prepared to change regimes on the merits, should be gung-ho on Saddam.”
The inquiry also heard that Mr Blair disregarded his top legal adviser’s warning that attacking Iraq would be illegal without further United Nations backing because the guidance was “provisional”.
The former prime minister “held to the position” that another UN Security Council resolution explicitly supporting military action was unnecessary despite being told the opposite by attorney general Lord Goldsmith.
Mr Blair said he believed Lord Goldsmith would come around to his interpretation of the legal position once he knew the full history of the negotiations behind UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which paved the way for the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq.
Lord Goldsmith told Mr Blair in a six-page draft legal opinion on January 14 2003 that Resolution 1441 was not enough on its own to justify the use of force against Iraq.
Mr Blair said in a statement to the inquiry: “I had not yet got to the stage of a formal request for advice and neither had he got to the point of formally giving it.
“So I was continuing to hold to the position that another resolution was not necessary.”
But it was not until March 7 2003 – less than a fortnight before the invasion began – that Lord Goldsmith presented Mr Blair with formal legal advice that a “reasonable case” could be made for launching an attack without further UN backing.
Mr Blair was also asked about the contents of a secret letter he wrote to Mr Bush in July 2002.
The inquiry heard that Mr Blair’s foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, tried to persuade him to change the first sentence of the note because it was “too sweeping” and closed off Britain’s options.
Mr Blair told the inquiry: “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 here are the difficulties’.”
He refused a request by the inquiry to release the full contents of the letter, which has already been blocked by Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell.
He said: “I’m not going to hide behind the Cabinet Secretary, it’s not my way.
“I think it’s extremely important that the British prime minister and the American president are able to communicate in confidence and if something is given in confidence it should be treated like that.”
Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot said: “I said to the Cabinet Secretary we were disappointed it was not possible to see the statement – which of course we have seen – and that disappointment continues.”
Mr Blair ended his evidence with a strong defence of his relationship with America, although he said that at times it could be “tough” and that people had to consider whether the “pain gain ratio” was worth it.
“I think you do have to consider that. My view is clear that it is,” he said.
“I believe that it is important that we keep that relationship together. But I think we have to be realistic about it. When we are in a situation like this we are going to have to accept that it is going to be difficult and hard.”
He said that it underlined the need for Britain to develop other international relationships, including a European defence capability.
“I personally think there is an even stronger argument today for the development of both a European defence capability and also a nation-building capacity because I think in both of those areas we can do far more and therefore have more weight and more leverage if we are in alongside others.”
Mr Blair later left the hearing.