Thu, Oct 02, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Blair sticks to his guns

CONCILIATION, HUMILITYBritish Prime Minister Tony Blair told the annual Labour Party conference, that he respects criticism but that he did the right thing in Iraq

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND

British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks at the Labour Party Annual Conference at the International Conference Centre in Bournemouth on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AFP

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday that he had no question that his decision to go to war in Iraq was right, and he asserted that he would do it again in the same circumstances.

But in a speech that mixed unaccustomed conciliation and humility with his customary declaration of basic convictions, Blair added that he understood why so many Britons strongly disagreed with him and that he hoped they would come to understand that he had real reasons for acting.

"I know many people are disappointed, hurt, angry," he said, addressing the annual Labour Party conference, where many of the misgivings about his actions in Iraq and even calls for his resignation have been aired.

"I know many profoundly believe the action we took was wrong," he said. "I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me. I ask just one thing: Attack my decision, but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again."

Alternately confessional and determined, it was a subdued performance for Blair, a speaker with a history of stemwinding rallying calls to the faithful at the annual party conference but one who on Tuesday abandoned his jaunty stage presence for a more deliberate approach, substituting his signature broad grin with a set jaw.

The new style seemed tailored to the mission beginning this week, which is to regain the trust sacrificed in pursuing an unpopular war. His favorable standing, sustained for almost the entire six-year period since he came to office, has slumped since the war with the failure to discover unconventional weapons -- his principal rationale for taking military action -- and with suspicions that his government manipulated intelligence to exaggerate the threat.

He said that he had acted in Iraq because he thought it represented the 21st century threat of an outlaw state in a position to furnish weapons to terrorists bent on "another Sept. 11 or worse" unless challenged. In response to critics of his alliance with the US, he said, "If it is the threat of the 21st century, Britain should be in there helping confront it, not because we are America's poodle but because dealing with it will make Britain safer."

The line drew sustained applause from delegates, who, contrary to what many had predicted, greeted Blair's arrival in the hall and the conclusion of his speech with prolonged standing ovations.

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