Ex-British prime minister Tony Blair: The world is safer without Saddam Hussein

Protesters gather outside the London building where a panel questioned former prime minister Tony Blair about Britain's role in the Iraq war.
Protesters gather outside the London building where a panel questioned former prime minister Tony Blair about Britain's role in the Iraq war. (Marco Secchi/getty Images)
By Karla Adam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

LONDON -- Former prime minister Tony Blair on Friday unequivocally defended the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, telling a panel investigating Britain's role in the war that the world was made "a safer place" by the removal of Saddam Hussein.

"I think he was a monster. I believe he threatened not just the region, but the world," Blair said. "If I'm asked if I believe we are safer, more secure, that Iraq is better, that our own security is better with Saddam and his two sons out of power . . . then I believe indeed we are."

At the end of six hours of intense questioning in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center next to the Houses of Parliament, Blair was asked twice whether he had regrets about his actions. When he did not express remorse, James Sandry, one of the 80 members of the public who won a public ballot to sit a few feet from Blair during his testimony Friday, shouted, "Ah, come on!"

Blair's testimony has been widely billed as the highlight of the government-commissioned inquiry launched in July to investigate Britain's role before, during and after the invasion of Iraq. The five-member panel, which is not a court, is expected to issue a report at the end of the year.

Confident and articulate, the man once known as Teflon Tony told the panel that Sept. 11, 2001, changed the "calculus of risk" with respect to Iraq and other countries including Libya, North Korea and Iran. It also changed estimates of what could happen if rogue states possessed weapons of mass destruction, he said.

"If those people, inspired by this religious fanaticism, could have killed 30,000, they would have," he said. "The decision I took, and frankly would take again, was if there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction, we should stop him."

Blair said repeatedly there are similar fears today over the nuclear threat posed by Iran.

He acknowledged indirectly that mistakes were made in postwar planning. "If we knew then what we know now, we would have done things differently," he said.

Sitting behind Blair as he was being questioned was Reg Keys, whose son Tom was one of the 179 British troops who died in Iraq. Keys, 57, was among those who did not anticipate a smoking gun Friday, in part because there have already been two official inquiries here into the war.

"He's very polished, as is to be expected. A consummate professional," Keys said. "None of this is new."

Some thought the grilling was a chance for Blair to put his reputation on firmer ground. Since leaving office in 2007, he has drawn criticism here for his well-paid speeches and lucrative role as adviser to companies such as J.P. Morgan and Louis Vuitton. By contrast, he has received little praise for his charitable and humanitarian work.

Blair's decision to go to war -- which he said he thinks about every day -- was deeply unpopular.

"He's seen like Nixon was over Watergate. He's seen to be avoiding the truth over Iraq. And his lavish lifestyle grates with the British public," said Anthony Seldon, a biographer of Blair's.

Looking tan but grayer than when he left office, Blair appeared well-prepared, frequently leafing through a black binder of papers.

The panel, chaired by former civil servant John Chilcot, has been criticized at times for not pressing hard enough with questions. At one point Friday, panelist Roderic Lyne, a former ambassador to Moscow, asked Blair to confirm that he had correctly summarized testimony on the legal case for war.

"I'm not the lawyer -- you are," Lyne told Blair, eliciting a rare smile.

Contradicting testimony from earlier witnesses, Blair insisted that the decision to invade Iraq was not made in secret with President George W. Bush nearly a year before the invasion.

Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to Washington, recently told the panel that an agreement was "signed in blood" when Bush and Blair met at the president's ranch in Crawford, Tex., in April 2002.

On Friday, Blair said that "nothing was decided" at the meeting, only a commitment "to deal with Saddam."

But when asked about what he thought Bush took away from that meeting, he said: "I think what he took from that was exactly what he should have taken, which was, if it came to military action because there was no way of dealing with this diplomatically, we would be with him."

Blair dismissed questions about the legality of the war, saying the top legal adviser in the country had given his approval.

Pressed to describe the intelligence used to justify toppling Hussein, he said that at the time, he had believed it to be "beyond doubt" that Iraq was continuing to develop its weapons capacity.

Now, he said, "Things obviously look quite different."

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