Sat, Jan 22, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Blair faces second grilling on Iraq

NO BLANK CHECK:The former British leader said he had been clear he wanted former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein brought into compliance with UN resolutions

AP, LONDON AND BLOOMBERG

A demonstrator holds a painting of former British prime minister Tony Blair outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in central London yesterday. Blair was at the center yesterday for a return appearance before an inquiry into the Iraq War, headed by former civil servant John Chilcot.

Photo: Reuters

Former British prime minister Tony Blair returned to the country’s inquiry into the Iraq war yesterday, after witnesses raised doubts about sections of his testimony from a year ago — when he made a defiant defense of the decision to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Blair’s recall to clarify evidence he offered in a hearing in January last year follows contradictory claims made to the five-person inquiry panel by key officials, diplomats and military officers.

Blair said he did not offer then-US President George W. Bush a “blank check” of support in the run-up to the conflict.

“The objective never changed between April and September 2002,” Blair said in written evidence to the inquiry released at the start of the hearing. “It remained the same: To bring Saddam back to full and unconditional compliance with United Nations resolutions in respect of which he had been in breach for over a decade.”

“It was absolutely clear that we were going to be with the US in implementing this objective,” Blair said. “There can have been no one who was in any doubt about my determination on that score. I expressed it publicly. I made it clear also to president Bush that I would be with him in tackling it.”

Blair was expected to face about five hours of questioning and to be pressed on suggestions he falsely accused France of sinking efforts to agree a UN resolution specifically approving military action, and on evidence from spy chiefs who said they doubted Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction — Blair’s key justification for conflict.

“The decision I took — and frankly would take again — was, if there was any possibility that he [Hussein] could develop weapons of mass destruction, we would stop him,” Blair told the panel in his previous session. “It was my view then and that is my view now.”

Ahead of Blair’s session at London’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, a small number of protesters gathered for a demonstration against Blair.

Critics have long accused Blair — now envoy to the Quartet of Middle East Peacemakers — of pledging slavish support to Bush and misleading the UK on the need to join the conflict.

“Evidence has now emerged showing Blair lied to the public and [British] parliament about the legality of an attack on Iraq. Finally it has been confirmed that the war in Iraq was criminal as well as catastrophic,” said Chris Nineham, of the British Stop the War group.

The atmosphere ahead of Blair’s appearance has already been soured after it was confirmed on Tuesday that British authorities had refused to publish notes Blair sent to Bush ahead of the conflict.

Inquiry chairman John Chilcot has publicly denounced the decision by British Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, the UK’s most senior government official, to withhold the correspondence on the grounds that publication “would be likely to damage the UK’s international relations.”

Much evidence heard since hearings began in November 2009 focused on accusations that Blair offered Bush support for an invasion as early as April 2002 — a year before legislators approved the UK’s involvement.

Yesterday’s hearing was also expected to challenge Blair over evidence from Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5 between 2002 and 2007, on Iraq’s military capability.

She told the panel the belief Iraq might use weapons of mass destruction against the West “wasn’t a concern in either the short term or the medium term, to either my colleagues or myself.”

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