LONDON – He was right and he’d do it again.
That was Tony Blair’s message Friday as he fought for his place in history against critics who contend it was folly to join the Americans in invading Iraq based on intelligence that was faulty and weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.
The highly anticipated testimony before an official inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq conflict provided both a reprise and a coda to the Blair years: The former prime minister showed his impressive rhetorical skills and high-minded principles, but left unanswered whether the war that defines his mixed legacy was justified.
Many in the audience, including the relatives of soldiers and civilians killed in the war, were not impressed. Blair’s claim to have no regrets drew an angry outburst. As he left, one man stood up and shouted “You are a liar!” A second added: “And a murderer.”
The six-hour session Friday capped a wide-ranging inquiry that since November has heard extensive evidence from government lawyers and ministers who raised doubts about the legality and wisdom of the 2003 Iraq invasion, which was extremely unpopular in Britain.
The Iraq Inquiry panel plans to issue a report next year, but does not have a mandate to apportion blame or the power to bring any criminal charges.
Many Britons blamed Blair for blindly following the Americans — he was dubbed “Bush’s poodle” and accused of making a backroom deal with the U.S. president.
But while Blair showed signs of nerves during Friday’s testimony — even nibbling on the wings of his spectacles at one point — he was unrepentant as he defended the decision to topple Saddam Hussein and warned that today’s leaders face similar tough choices as they confront Iran over its nuclear program.
“The decision I took — and frankly would take again — was, if there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction, we would stop him,” Blair said. “It was my view then and that is my view now.”
“This isn’t about a lie, or a conspiracy, or a deceit, or a deception,” Blair said. “It’s a decision. And the decision I had to take was, given Saddam’s history, given his use of chemical weapons, given the over 1 million people whose deaths he had caused, given 10 years of breaking U.N. resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons program?”
Blair said the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States changed everything, showing that religious fanatics were determined to inflict mass casualties. That made it too dangerous to leave Saddam in power, he said, because Saddam’s Iraq — or other rogue states, like North Korea or Iran — could form links to terror groups and attack the West.
Blair conceded there were no known ties between Saddam and the al-Qaida architects of the 9/11 atrocities, but said he feared such links could have developed if Saddam and his sons remained in power.
Blair also insisted the U.S.-led invasion would have been called off had Saddam changed course and proved to U.N. inspectors that he had destroyed his arsenal.
That was met with a rebuff by one panel member, renowned historian Sir Lawrence Freedman, who pointed out in acid tones that it would have been difficult for Saddam to prove he had dismantled weapons he didn’t have in the first place.
Blair did acknowledge postwar planning was flawed. He said his government did not anticipate the role al-Qaida and Iran would play in destabilizing Iraq after the fall of Saddam. The government had planned for a humanitarian crisis but did not foresee the sectarian violence that followed the invasion, he said.
The mood in the hearing room was strained. The audience included many with family killed in Iraq, and their presence added a sobering dose of reality to the legalistic jousting between Blair and the distinguished panel, which included knights and a baroness.
Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in Iraq in 2004, said she felt revulsion at Blair’s presence.
“Actually, I felt sick,” she said. “He seemed to be shaking as well, which I am pleased about — the eyes of all the families were on him.”
It was more raucous outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center, where some 150 protesters shouted slogans including “Jail Tony” and “Blair lied — thousands died,” while rows of police kept them away from the building.
It was an uncomfortable return to the limelight for the once popular Blair, who swept to power with a landslide victory in 1997 but saw his strong bond with the British public disintegrate after the Iraq invasion.
The bouncy step, easy smile and “Call me Tony” bonhomie of Blair’s early years was gone, replaced by a stern, lawyerly figure who found himself interrupted and contradicted by his skeptical inquisitors.
He seemed defensive and sometimes exasperated; he is not a man accustomed to being interrupted, as happened frequently when he started to elaborate and digress. He showed signs of aging — a spreading bald spot, fine lines around his gray-blue eyes — but otherwise looked tanned and fit.
At times, Saddam seemed to hover over the proceedings — hanged for his crimes in 2006 but still vilified by Blair as evil incarnate.
The other absent figure whose presence was strongly felt was former President George W. Bush, who early on enlisted Blair’s support for the Iraq invasion.
Drinking Malvern spring water throughout the lengthy hearing, Blair denied falsifying intelligence to boost the case for military action or making an early commitment to Bush to use force against Saddam more than a year before Britain’s Parliament approved military action.
He also said he did not pressure his attorney general, Peter Goldsmith, to change his view and assert that the invasion would be legal under international law.
Blair also insisted the existing U.N. resolution offered sufficient authority for the invasion.
Mark Wickham-Jones, a professor of political science at the University of Bristol, said Blair’s testimony would not change the view among Britons that the war had been a disaster that was Blair’s responsibility.
“Iraq is the millstone around his neck,” Wickham-Jones said. “His legacy is Iraq, and the inquiry didn’t do him any favors.”