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Blair's journey from 45-minute claim to 'qualified apology' over Iraq

Former British prime minister now says he feels bad about the war in Iraq, but has he ever actually apologised? MEE looks back at the evidence
Tony Blair speaks to British soldiers in Basra in 2004 in the run-up to the Iraqi elections. (AFP)

Britain and America “profoundly” underestimated the chaos that would be unleashed by the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair admitted this week, in what has been labelled his starkest expression of regret over the Iraq War.

Speaking at an event hosted by Prospect magazine, the former British prime minister repeated his view that the West had not foreseen the “forces of destabilisation” in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He said: “We underestimated profoundly the forces that were at work in the region and that would take advantage of the change once you topple the regime.”

However Blair’s comments were just the latest in a string of qualified and partial apologies for the Iraq war. With the long-awaited Chilcot Inquiry report into the war due to be published within weeks, attention has focused on Blair’s journey from cheerleading for war to a series of non-apology apologies.

September 2002

Blair makes the infamous claims to MPs: “It [the intelligence service] concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes.”

March 2003

On the eve of war, Blair tells MPs at a crunch House of Commons vote that: “This is not the time to falter. This is the time for this House to give a lead.”

June 2003

Nearly three months after the invasion, no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) have been found despite extensive searches by US and British troops. Despite this Blair said he had “no doubt” that inspectors would “find the clearest possible evidence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction“.

July 2003

Under mounting pressure as searches in Iraq continue to come up empty-handed, Blair tells the Commons: “I don’t concede it at all that the intelligence at the time was wrong.” In the same month President George W Bush declared that American troops would remain in Iraq, challenging the insurgents to bring the fight to US marines and soldiers. He said: “My answer is, bring ‘em on.”

January 2004

By early 2004, as a suicide bomber killed more than 60 Iraqis outside the headquarters of the US-led coalition, Blair shows his first real doubts over the conflict in an interview with BBC Breakfast with Frost. Asked whether he was wrong about the existence of WMD, he said: “I don't know. The chief of defence staff and other people were saying, 'Well, we think we might have potential WMD finds here or there'. Now these things didn’t actually come to anything in the end.”

An anti-war protester holds a placard that reads "Justice for Iraq, the Hague for Blair" during a demonstration in central London in 2012. (AFP)

July 2004

More than a year after the invasion Blair told the Commons that WMDs “could have been hidden”. Later that month he changed his stance, telling the Butler inquiry into the invasion that it was “increasingly clear” that Saddam “did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy”.

September 2004

The Labour Party conference in 2004 brought a major change in direction when Blair said regime change alone was a worthy justification for the war. He said: “I can apologise for the information being wrong but I can never apologise, sincerely at least, for removing Saddam. The world is a better place with Saddam in prison not in power.”

March 2006

Blair sounds the death knell for WMDs as he claims the invasion was part of a wider global struggle between “democracy and violence”. In the major foreign policy speech he did not mention WMDs, but said: “This is not a clash between civilisations. It is a clash about civilisation.” Meanwhile President George Bush said of Iraq’s WMD programme: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee - I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me - you can’t get fooled again.”

December 2009

In an interview with Fern Britton for the BBC, Blair admitted that a lack of WMDs would not have stopped the invasion. He said: “I would still have thought it right to remove him. I mean obviously you would have to use and deploy different argument about the nature of the threat.”

January 2010

As he was barracked by a member of the public, Blair tells the Chilcot Inquiry that he has “no regrets” about removing Saddam. In a robust defence of his decision to go to war he labelled Saddam a “monster” who “threatened not just the region but the world.” He said Iraqis were now better off and he would take the same decisions again.

January 2011

Blair finally said he “regrets deeply and profoundly the loss of life” caused by the invasion of Iraq. Speaking at his second appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry he said his earlier refusal to express regret for the conflict had been misinterpreted. His words were met with cries of “too late” from the public gallery.

February 2013

Nearly ten years after the invasion of Iraq the former UK prime minister told BBC Newsnight that life in Iraq was not what he had hoped it would be when he opted to invade. He said he thinks about those who died and the consequences for their families, but added that “in the end you are elected prime minister to make these decisions.”

March 2013

On the 10th anniversary of the invasion he said that the situation in Iraq would have been “a lot worse than Syria” if the US-led invasion had not removed Saddam Hussein. He claimed that an Arab Spring-style rebellion against Saddam by Iraqis would have seen protesters “killed in very large numbers”.

June 2014

Blair rejected as “bizarre” claims the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 contributed to the rise of the Islamic State group. In an essay on his website he said: “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that we caused this.” His essay was published as Islamic State fighters swept through towns and cities north and west of Baghdad.

October 2015

In a major concession, apparently designed to prepare the ground of the publication of the Chilcot inquiry, Blair offered a qualified apology for the use of misleading intelligence and the failure to plan properly for the aftermath of the invasion. In an interview with CNN, the former British premier apologised for “some of the mistakes in planning”. He also said: “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.” However he refused to apologise for “removing Saddam”.

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