Tony Blair Iraq inquiry: Hussein was risk worth trying to contain

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is the top witness before Britain’s inquiry into the Iraq war. With the future of his Labour Party on the line, Blair maintained in questioning Friday that Saddam Hussein was a threat in 2003 and that Iran's weapons program is a threat today.

By , Correspondent

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    Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is seen on television displays at a London department store as he gives evidence to the Iraq Inquiry on Friday.
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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair invoked the terror of 9/11 as he defended his support for the invasion of Iraq during an appearance Friday at Britain's inquiry into the war. With his legacy overshadowed by the 2003 intervention, Mr. Blair argued that while the 2001 attacks on the US had not changed the threat from Iraq, they completely shifted his perception of the risk posed from terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

“The crucial thing after Sept. 11 is that the calculus of risk changed," he said in an inquiry broadcast live on British television and on British news websites. "The point about this act in New York was that, had they been able to kill even more people than those 3,000, they would have. And so after that time, my view was, you could not take risks with this issue at all.”

As police contained hundreds of protesters calling for Blair to be tried as a war criminal, the former premier arrived two hours early and entered via a back door before his highly anticipated appearance at the government-established investigation.

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Blair testimony a political threat to Brown

But while Britain’s involvement in the unpopular war has long been associated with Blair, the inquiry is suddenly emerging as a political threat to his successor, Gordon Brown, by reawakening of public memories of the conflict during an election year.

Mr. Brown's own appearance at the inquiry had originally been put off until after polling day to prevent it from becoming an election issue. But following pressure from opposition politicians, he is to appear as a witness within weeks.

Brown, who voted for the war when he was chancellor of the Exchequer, has never been closely cross-examined about his role in the invasion and the extent to which he may or may not have challenged Blair’s case for it.

He is vulnerable to the charge that he supported the war under false pretenses and that he then failed to provide the armed forces with the funding it needed in preparation.

Geoff Hoon, a Labour MP who served as defense secretary at the time of the war and was behind an attempted leadership coup against Brown earlier this month, told the inquiry Jan. 19 that Brown had forced military planners to cut their budget, depriving British troops of much-needed helicopters.

Labour Party runs risk of warmongering label

“It fits into a longstanding preconception that Brown is not too keen on the Ministry for Defense,” John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said in a telephone interview. “However, we are now in the midst of another foreign adventure, about which the public do not have a great deal of confidence, and which is costing lives.”

“Labour is running the risk of being regarded as the party which gets involved in foreign wars. A second problem is the way that it is no longer regarded as being particularly competent.”

“The inquiry is feeding into current public preconceptions about the government by reminding people how there really was not adequate planning for the war and its aftermath, exposing misjudgements and portraying ministers as not being in the loop,” Curtice says.

A survey for Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper earlier this month showed that 52 percent of Britons believe Blair deliberately misled the country over the war. Almost 1 in 4 (23 percent) think he should be tried as a war criminal. Such opposition to the war is credited with depriving the Labour Party of large numbers of voters during the 2005 general election, which saw the party's overall majority sharply reduced.

Blair: 'We thought [Hussein] was a risk'

Although the inquiry is not the trial that his most ardent critics desire, and there is little faith in the ability of its examining panel to conduct a rigorous forensic examination, Blair appeared periodically nervous under close questioning.

Leaning forward in his chair and adopting a somber expression, he appeared eager to press home points while members of the inquiry panel pressed him to answer key questions such as what he discussed with President George W. Bush during an April 2002 meeting in Crawford, Texas.

But Blair said there had been no "covert" deal with Bush to go to war when they met at the president's Texas ranch – 11 months before the invasion.

"The position was not a covert position, it was an open position," he said, insisting that he always been open that Hussein had to be confronted over his weapons program.

"Up to Sept. 11, we thought [Hussein] was a risk, but we thought it was worth trying to contain it,” said Blair, who has held lucrative corporate posts and served as a middle-east peace envoy since stepping down as prime minister.

During questioning Friday, he sought to play down his comments in a December interview with a BBC television presenter, in which he said he would have thought it right to remove Saddam Hussein even if he had known that he did not have WMD.

Blair suggests military action to stop Iranian weapons program

Blair also appeared to suggest at one point that military action might be necessary to stop Iran developing its weapons programs, saying that Tehran's actions have made him even more worried today that a rogue state could supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists than he was when he took Britain to war with Iraq.

"My judgment – and it may be other people don't take this view, and that's for the leaders of today to make their judgment – is we don't take any risks with this issue," he said.

"My fear was – and I would say I hold this fear stronger today than I did back then as a result of what Iran particularly today is doing – my fear is that states that are highly repressive or failed, the danger of a WMD link is that they become porous, they construct all sorts of different alliances with people."

Earlier this month, Blair's former communications director and chief spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell, denied that he “sexed up” a 2002 intelligence document claiming Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes in order to exaggerate the case for war.

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