Tony Blair sets forth his own Iraq history

LONDON, United Kingdom — Clearly feeling the strain of six hours at the witness table, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair survived his day of testimony at Britain's Iraq Inquiry here without his inquisitors landing a serious blow.

His voice failing but his spirit intact, Blair today threw himself robustly into the task of writing into history his own version of the war. He finished the gruelling day by insisting that Iraqis were better off materially now than they had been under Saddam Hussein, and that he had no regrets about removing the dictator.

He categorically rejected any suggestion that he had deceived the public about the grounds for war.

“This isn’t about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception,” he declared. “It’s a decision. And the decision I had to take was, given Saddam’s history, given his use of chemical weapons, given the over 1 million people whose deaths he had caused, given 10 years of breaking U.N. resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons programs or is that a risk it would be irresponsible to take?”

Blair also defended his alliance with the United States, denying that there had been a covert deal between himself and then-President George W. Bush, saying instead that he “didn't want America to feel that it had no option but to do it on its own.”

In three hours at the witness table this morning, Blair insisted that intelligence assessments supported the view that Iraq had a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.

“It was at least reasonable for me at the time [to conclude that] this was a threat I should take very seriously,” he said. “All the intelligence we received was to the same effect. There were people perfectly justifiably and sensibly also saying that you cannot sit around and wait ... you have got to take action clearly and definitively.”

Blair’s eagerly awaited appearance at the hearings came at the end of a week of revelations that attacked the legality of the 2003 invasion and chipped away at the foundations of his government’s war rationale.

The inquiry is the fifth in a succession of panels set up by the government in response to public fury about the war. All have failed to defuse a widespread conviction, focused on Blair himself, that Britons were deceived, and in the days before his appearance feelings against him were stoked by his detractors.

Anticipating high emotions, police prepared for the worst, and in a street just out of sight of the conference center where the inquiry is taking place waited a long row of police vans.

Yet it was an orderly throng that gathered in the cold rain, displaying signs that called the former prime minister a liar and mass murderer. A young man in a rubber Bair mask gripped the bars of a mock-up prison cell. Blair himself arrived at 7 a.m. and was whisked into the building through a rear entrance blocked off by police.

“I’ve been here waiting for him,” said Ellen Walker, 70, a lifelong supporter of Labour (Blair’s party). “I am deeply, deeply disappointed in him, and I wanted to look at him and show him we were here.”

All week long the pressure had been building to this day, as witness after witness revealed the depth of legal opposition and confusion that surrounded the final war deliberations of Blair’s government.

Lord Goldsmith, attorney-general in the run-up to the war, retraced the evolution of his views in the months before the invasion, from an original position that the war would be illegal without a specific United Nations resolution, to the intermediate stand that the war might indeed be legal without the resolution, although not definitely so, to the final opinion that the war was legal.

Goldsmith’s testimony came a day after two other former senior government lawyers told the inquiry that their own opinions had been exactly the opposite.

Sir Michael Wood, top lawyer at the Foreign Office at the time of the war, said he told Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, that “to use force without [U.N.] Security Council authority would amount to a crime of aggression.”

Wood’s opinion was backed up by Elizabeth Wilmshurst, his deputy at the time. “I regarded the invasion of Iraq as illegal,” she told the inquiry, insisting that rules on the use of force by states “are at the heart of international law. Collective security, as opposed to unilateral military action, is a central purpose of the charter of the United Nations.”

Wilmshurst resigned in protest over the invasion, an act she said at the time was “damaging the United Kingdom’s reputation as a state committed to the rule of law.”

In his testimony before the inquiry adjourned for lunch, Blair took pains to stress two points: that his actions were based on judgments about evidence rather than solely on the evidence itself, and that the world changed forever after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

“Here's what changed for me: the whole calculus of risk,” he said. “The point about this terrorist act was over 3,000 people had been killed, an absolutely horrific event. But if these people, inspired by this religious fanaticism could have killed 30,000, they would have.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Blair's afternoon testimony.