Blair berated at Iraq hearing, warns of Iran

FORMER British Prime Minister Tony Blair was barracked by relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq yesterday as he urged the West to deal with a “looming and coming challenge” of Iran.

The former Prime Minister appeared close to tears while talking about the British and civilian casualties at the end of his evidence to the official inquiry into the conflict. He had earlier insisted that Britain had to give up the “wretched policy of apology” for the allies’ action in Iraq.

During five hours of questioning at the inquiry, his second appearance after a previous session last year, it emerged that: Mr Blair told President Bush three months after 9/11 that Britain would help overthrow Saddam Hussein;  He ignored “provisional” legal advice that the war would be unlawful;

The Cabinet was kept in the dark about preparations for war.  The former Prime Minister explained why he had told the inquiry last year he had “no regrets”, saying: “I took that as a question about the decision to go to war. That was taken as my meaning that I had no regrets about the loss of life and that was never my meaning or my intention. I wanted to make it clear that, of course, I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life.”

Rose Gentle, the mother of Fusilier Gordon Gentle, 19, who died in Basra, cried out “too late”. Others echoed her cry, and two women stood and turned their backs on Mr Blair. Mrs Gentle shouted: “Your lies killed my son. I hope you can live with it.”

Mr Blair had been recalled by the inquiry, chaired by Sir John Chilcot, to explain gaps in his earlier evidence. The former Prime Minister said he had always made clear to Mr Bush that he would be “up for” regime change in Iraq if it was the only way of dealing with Saddam.

The “beginning of the track” started immediately after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, he said. During a private telephone conversation with Mr Bush that December he discussed ousting Saddam even though it was not then British policy. “I was saying, look, we are going to have to deal with this issue.”

Mr Blair asked his advisers in March 2002 for an “options paper” that included details of a “full-scale ground offensive”. The same month he wrote that Britain should be “gung-ho” about the prospect of getting rid of Saddam. Military planning for a war was stepped up after Mr Blair visited Mr Bush in April 2002. Three months later he wrote to Mr Bush. “What I was saying to the President was very clear and simple, ‘You can count on us’,” he said.

The inquiry said there was no record of substantive Cabinet discussion about Iraq between April and September 2002. Mr Blair replied that he had “no doubt at all” that the Cabinet knew of his views on Iraq because of newspaper and television reports.

He told the inquiry that he disregarded a warning by Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, that attacking Iraq would be illegal without further United Nations backing because the guidance was “provisional”.

But the former PM, now Middle East peace envoy, was at his most animated when talking about Iran’s influence in the region, which he condemned as “negative” and “destabilising”.

He said that as Middle East peace envoy he could see the “impact and the influence of Iran everywhere”.

“I say this to you with all of the passion I possibly can — at some point the West has to get out of what I think is a wretched policy or posture of apology for believing that we are causing what the Iranians are doing, or what these extremists are doing,” he said.

“We are not. The fact is they are doing it because they disagree fundamentally with our way of life and they’ll carry on doing it unless they are met by the requisite determination and, if necessary, force.”   Mr Blair rebuked US President Barack Obama for being too soft on Iran, urging the West to deal with a “looming and coming challenge” from the Islamic republic.

He criticised Mr Obama for being too soft on Tehran, saying his appeal to Iran in his 2009 Cairo speech achieved little.

“President Obama – not President Bush – goes in March 2009 to Cairo, right in the heart of Islam. He makes a speech where he says effectively ‘put aside the Bush era, I’m now offering the hand of friendship, you, Iran can come into partnership, you are an ancient, proud civilisation’,” Mr Blair said.

“What’s the response he gets? They carry on with the terrorism, they carry on with the destabilisation, they carry on with the nuclear weapons.  “At some point we have to get our head out of the sand and understand they are going to carry on with this.”

Mr Blair added: “They’ll carry on doing it unless they are met by the requisite determination and if necessary, force.”  Blair’s comments came as Iran began talks in Istanbul with six world powers over its disputed nuclear program.

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