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Blair defends his actions after damning report on Iraq war

Former British PM expresses 'sorrow' at failures in Iraq, but says he has no regrets over removing Saddam Hussein
Blair said Saddam 'was himself a wellspring of terror' (AFP)

Tony Blair expressed "sorrow, regret and apology" about the disaster of Britain's invasion of Iraq before launching a lengthy defence of his actions in response to damning criticism in Britain's official Iraq Inquiry.

The former British prime minister on Wednesday said he took "full responsibility" for the failures of his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, but that he could never apologise for removing the Iraqi dictator.

His statement - about 45 minutes followed by questions - came hours after Sir John Chilcot released his report, which concluded Blair had led Britain into an unnecessary war on the basis of flawed intelligence and without planning for the aftermath.

"I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe," said Blair, but he rejected claims that the war had destabilised Iraq and the Middle East, saying that "Saddam was himself a wellspring of terror".

"It’s claimed by some that by removing Saddam we caused the terrorism today in the Middle East. And it would be better to keep him in power. I profoundly disagree. Saddam was himself a wellspring of terror, a threat to peace and his own people.

"If he had been left in power in 2003, then I believe he would have once again threatened world peace and when the Arab revolutions of 2011 began, he would have [fought off change]…with the same deadly consequences that we see in Syria today.

"I knew it was not a popular decision... I did it because I thought it was right and because I thought the human cost of inaction... would be greater for us and for the world in the longer term," he said.

"At least in Iraq, for all its challenges, we have today a government that is elected, is recognised as internationally legitimate," he added.

LIVE BLOG: Chilcot as it happens

But Blair faces renewed criticism for his actions in the lead-up to 2003, with the sister of a British soldier killed in Iraq, Sarah O'Connor, describing him as "the world's worst terrorist".

The report concluded that he had assured the US he would stand beside them "whatever," that he had acted on intelligence that seriously overestimated Saddam's threat and capability, and that Blair circumvented cabinet procedure to commit British troops to a war that undercut the UN Security Council and did not need to be fought.

Sir John Chilcot's report, which runs to 2.6 million words and 12 volumes, also offered fierce criticism of the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which advised Blair.

The report concluded that JIC presented the threat posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) “with a certainty that was not justified” and that despite “explicit warnings,” the consequences of the invasion were “underestimated” with disastrous consequences for the 179 British soldiers killed in the conflict and for the Iraqi people.

The vast report, which is still being digested, also found:

  •  The decision to commit British troops to war was made by Blair alone and without a formal cabinet decision.
  •  Blair’s own foreign policy advisers told him to tone down his support for regime change in private letters to Bush.
  •  Britain went to war while weapons inspectors were making progress in Iraq in a move that undermined the authority of the UN and international law.
  •  The precise basis on which Blair advised his cabinet the war was legal was “not clear” and the legal circumstances were “far from satisfactory”.
  •  Blair had been explicitly warned that the invasion of the Iraq would increase the threat from al-Qaeda in the UK and in Iraq.
  •  He was also warned of the risks of internal strife in Iraq and the role Iran and al-Qaeda would likely play in destabilising the country.

However, the report stopped short of labelling the war illegal or calling for the former prime minister to put put on trial for war crimes, in a move that may disappoint families of soldiers killed in Iraq and could prompt accusations of a “whitewash”.

Chilcot said: "The questions for the inquiry were whether it was right and necessary to invade Iraq and whether the UK could and should have been better prepared for what followed. 

"The UK chose to join the invasion before peaceful options for disarmamaent were exhausted."

Oborne on Chilcot: ‘He has done his job. It is not a let down’

Chilcot said the decision to go to war was “shaped by key choices made by Blair’s government” during the 18-month-long march to war.

During this period, Blair repeatedly backed a “clever strategy” for regime change, newly released diplomatic cables show, and by the time the former prime minister visited George W Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch in early April 2002, official British thinking had undergone “profound change” towards the use of force in Iraq.

Chilcot’s report concluded that Blair did seek a partnership to influence Bush to seek a UN mandate for the conflict, but that this was ultimately unsuccessful and the conflict went ahead without international backing or legitimacy.

In a note to Bush in July 2002, after the Crawford meeting between the two men, Blair said: “I will be with you, whatever. But this is the moment to assess bluntly the difficulties. The planning on this and the strategy are the toughest yet. This is not Kosovo. This is not Afghanistan. It is not even the Gulf war.”

In comments that will be seized upon by critics of the war, he added: “The military part is hazardous, but I will concentrate mainly on the political context for success.”

Blair went on to state that regime change and getting rid of Saddam Hussein was “the right thing to do” as he was a potential threat.

He said: “He could be contained. But containment… is always risky. His departure would free up the region. And his regime is… brutal and inhumane.”

Diplomatic advice ignored

The Chilcot report also revealed Blair had ignored the advice of his own diplomats during the march to war, citing calls from Sir David Manning, the British ambassador to Washington for Blair to remove the word “whatever” from the crucial July 2002 transatlantic cable.

Sir David, who advised Blair to remove the entire first sentence, told Chilcot that the statement, which can be interpreted as offering the US unconditional backing, was “too sweeping”.

Sir John’s report also found that Blair had concluded that the “likelihood was war” by early January 2003, after Bush administration told London that the weapons inspectors deployed to Iraq “would not achieve the desired result,” Chilcot said in his statement on Wednesday morning.

The next month, Blair accepted the US timetable for war without any consultation with his cabinet, in a move which will prompt fresh charges the former prime minister oversaw a “sofa-style of government”.

Sir John also said that on the eve of war the final decision to invade was also made “without evidence of major new Iraqi violations,” in a move that “undermined” the authority of the UN Security Council.

In comments that will be seized upon by the anti-war campaigners gathered outside the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in central London, where Sir John revealed his report, the former civil servant concluded that the invasion went ahead when “there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein”.

He also added that the previous strategy of “containment could have been adopted and continued for some time,” amid suggestions that the weapons inspectors had been making progress and expected “further co-operation” from Saddam Hussein’s government.

Chilcot also made sweeping attacks on Britain’s preparedness for war and the pre-conflict planning, which he blamed on Blair’s failure to “establish clear ministerial oversight of UK planning and preparation”.

In some of the sharpest criticism of the former prime minister, Sir John, said: “He did not ensure there was a flexible, realistic and fully resourced plan that integrated UK military and civilian contributions, and address the known risks.”

As many as one million Iraqis are thought to have died in the aftermath of the invasion and the civil war that followed.

Jumping the gun? Dissecting Blair's written statement on Chilcot

Sir John added: “The government’s preparations failed to take account of the magnitude of the task of stabilising, administering and reconstructing Iraq, and of the responsibilities which were likely to fall to the UK.”

"Whereas at least in Iraq, with all of its challenges, we have today a government that is elected, recognised as internationally legitimate and is fighting terrorism. The world was, and is in my judgment, a better place without Saddam Hussein."

Chilcot’s report shows that Blair was repeatedly warned the invasion of Iraq would strengthen al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants.

According to the report, the JIC told him in early February 2003, one month before British tanks rolled into southern Iraq, that the invasion would “increase” the threat to the UK and in Iraq,

He was also warned by the JIC that al-Qaeda and other militants would likely become more active in central Iraq and would set up “sleeper cells” in Baghdad to be “activated by a US occupation".

In a declassified JIC cable that will see some critics make links to the bombing of tube trains and a bus in London in July 2005, Blair was told that the threat from “Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti-US/Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West”.