British Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected claims on Tuesday that he misled Britain about Iraq's weapons and insisted prewar intelligence had shown former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was a threat.
Blair said that his government and spy agencies would learn lessons from an official British report that last week concluded Saddam did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that there were "serious flaws" in British intelligence about his arms.
But Blair defended the war and insisted he had made the right decision in backing the US-led invasion.
"It was absolutely clear that he [Saddam] had every intention to carry on developing these weap-ons, that he was procuring materials to do so," Blair said in a House of Commons debate, called in the wake of Lord Butler's report on British intelligence failures.
"The intelligence community throughout, like the United Nations, like most intelligence services in the world, certainly did believe he had Iraqi WMD capability and intent," Blair said.
"Today at least Iraq has a future within its grasp and though it is correct that the liberation was not the legal case for war, it was, as I said frequently at the time, why we should go to war with a clear conscience and a strong heart," Blair said. "Removing Saddam was not a war crime, it was an act of liberation for the Iraq people."
Political opponents said, however, that Blair's confident assertions before the war that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were misleading, when intelligence was patchy at best.
Conservative Party leader Michael Howard said there was an alarming gap between intelligence that was "sporadic, patchy, little and limited" and Blair's prewar statements that said it was "extensive, detailed and authoritative."
"The prime minister once said that he was a pretty straight guy. But he has not been straight with the British people today. Why is it that for this prime minister `sorry' seems to be the hardest word?" Howard said.
Howard's criticism was blunted, however, by the fact that he and his party wholeheartedly supported the war. Blair accused him of "shabby opportunism," to loud cheers of support from Labour lawmakers.
The inquiry, led by Lord Butler, last week concluded that British intelligence on Iraqi WMD was flawed, but said the government had not deliberately deceived anyone as it built a case for toppling Saddam.
It said a September 2002 dossier prepared by Blair's government on the Iraqi threat pushed the government case to the limits of available intelligence and left out vital caveats.
The report found that Britain relied on just five main informers of varying reliability in Saddam's Iraq; few agents had detailed knowledge of weapons programs; and the Secret Intelligence Service's ability to scrutinize information had suffered from budget cuts.
Blair said lessons would be learned from Butler's report.
Future intelligence dossiers drafted by the government would include caveats about the limits of intelligence, he said. Britain's foreign intelligence service MI6 has appointed a senior officer to work through Butler's findings and his recommendations, Blair added.
Butler criticized the informal nature of Blair's government, in which key discussions are often held in his private office, without formal minutes being taken by anyone.
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