Saturday, January 30, 2010

Citing 9/11, Blair Defends Legacy at Iraq Inquiry



I question the reporters’ claim of “fewer than 300 demonstrators,” but note that Bush’s poodle avoided the throng by going in the back door.  Nevertheless, people did speak out inside the hearing.  Of course, Blair and many others should be tried as war criminals.  But can you imagine Bush, Cheney, Condi and that crew being investigated by a war crimes commission in Washington, D.C.?







The New York Times


January 30, 2010

Citing 9/11, Blair Defends Legacy at Iraq Inquiry


LONDON — Almost seven years after he ordered British troops to join the American-led invasion of Iraq, former Prime Minister Tony Blair mounted an unwavering defense of his actions on Friday, saying he would take the same steps again to counter what he depicted as a threat from Saddam Hussein that had assumed far greater dimensions after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In an appearance before an official inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq conflict, Mr. Blair sought to reshape the unflattering legacy molded since he left office in 2007 by his many critics in Britain. He has been accused, often bitterly, of pliantly following former President George W. Bush’s lead into an illegal and unpopular war, and of misleading his countrymen about his reasons for doing so.


For Mr. Blair, a grueling six hours of broadcast testimony provided a rare return to the public spotlight at home after 30 months of frenetic travel as a Middle East peace negotiator, and as the beneficiary of lucrative public-speaking engagements and consultancy deals, many of them in the United States.


Taken together, popular opprobrium over Iraq and the sense that he has used the stature derived from 10 years in office to amass a fortune — said by British newspapers to be worth at least $30 million — have made the 56-year-old former prime minister, once popular enough to win three general elections, into something approaching a pariah at home.


Concern for his safety led the police to mount a huge security cordon around the conference center in central London where the inquiry has been taking testimony, and to usher Mr. Blair’s limousine in and out of the building through a heavily guarded underground parking garage. The protests largely fizzled, however, with fewer than 300 demonstrators mounting a noisy vigil outside the conference center in a drizzling rain.


But whether Mr. Blair’s standing was enhanced or diminished by his testimony was uncertain, particularly after a jarring exchange at the end of his testimony, when he was asked by the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Chilcot, if he had any regrets. After Mr. Blair said he accepted “responsibility” and regretted the divisions the war had caused in Britain, but did not feel “regret for removing Saddam Hussein,” decorum in the hearing room briefly collapsed.


“No regret, come on, man!” shouted James Sadri, a young man in the public gallery, prompting the startled inquiry chairman to demand silence. But that was followed by the sounds of sobbing from women in the gallery whose soldier sons had died in Iraq.


“You are a liar!” one woman cried, followed by another saying, “You are a murderer!” As Mr. Blair left the room, he passed close to the two women as they were comforted by others in the gallery.


A third of the seats in the gallery were assigned to relatives of the 179 British servicemen and women killed in Iraq in the six years of conflict that ended for Britain with the withdrawal of its last units in July last year. Many of the family members told reporters afterward that they were bitterly disappointed not to have heard the former prime minister express some contrition over the conflict, or at least over the deaths of British troops.


The inquiry offered Mr. Blair a prominent platform to map out his version of a history that has brought much vilification in his own land. He defended his close relationship with Mr. Bush, depicted by Mr. Blair’s adversaries — and by some of his former aides in their testimony before the inquiry — as having involved a covert plan by Mr. Blair to circumvent hostile opinion both in Britain and at the United Nations.


“This isn’t about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception,” Mr. Blair said. “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 one 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 program or is that a risk it is responsible to take?”


Taut and ill at ease at the outset of his testimony, Mr. Blair quickly caught his rhythm, and rode out a series of impatient thrusts by members of the inquiry panel, effectively dominating the hearing. He offered no apology for joining President Bush in toppling Mr. Hussein, saying repeatedly he thought it was in the best interests of Britain and the world.


“The decision I took — and frankly would take again — was: if there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction, we would stop him. It was my view then and that is my view now,” he said.


The former prime minister said the attacks of Sept. 11 had hardened his resolve on the need to curb the threat that he said Mr. Hussein posed with his years of defiance of United Nations resolutions demanding that he abandon efforts to develop biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.


“The crucial thing after Sept. 11 is that the calculus of risk changed,” Mr. Blair said. “The point about this terrorist act was that over 3,000 people had been killed on the streets of New York, and this is what changed my perception of risk: if these people inspired by this religious fanaticism could have killed 30,000, they would have.”


Some of the most probing questioning turned on Mr. Blair’s confidential meetings with Mr. Bush, starting with an encounter at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Tex., in April 2002, where Mr. Blair has been accused by critics of secretly committing Britain to war. “What I said to George Bush was that we are going to be with you” in countering the perceived threat from Mr. Hussein, he said, but he said he had made it clear that Britain would join in military action only after all diplomatic options had been exhausted.


On several occasions, Mr. Blair urged the inquiry to shift from its focus on what led Britain to war to the “2010 question” of what the situation would have been without the invasion. If the United States and Britain had not toppled Mr. Hussein, he said, “we would be facing a situation where Iraq would be competing with Iran on nuclear weapons capability and in support of terrorist groups.”


John F. Burns reported from London, and Alan Cowell from Paris.



Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company






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