Blair 'profoundly' regrets lives lost in Iraq war

21st January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Former prime minister Tony Blair told Britain's Iraq war inquiry Friday that he profoundly regretted the loss of life in the conflict, but sparked angry shouts of "too late" from dead soldiers' families.

In an emotional summing up after his second appearance at the inquiry probing Britain's role in the US-led invasion of 2003, Blair said his remark at his first hearing last year that he had "no regret" had been misunderstood.

"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," he told the hearing in London.

"I wanted to make that clear that of course I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life, whether from our own armed forces, those of other nations, the civilians who helped people in Iraq or the Iraqis themselves."

His words sparked an angry response from the packed public gallery, where a number of relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq were sitting.

Several shouted out that his words were "too late" and two women stood up, deliberately turning their backs to Blair, before they were asked to be quiet.

"Your lies killed my son, I hope you can live with yourself," shouted Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in 2006 while serving in Basra, southern Iraq, as Blair left the hearing.

Outside the central London venue, dozens of anti-war demonstrators gathered held up banners calling Blair a liar and chanting "Tony Blair -- to The Hague", where war crimes tribunals are held.

Blair, wearing a dark suit and tie and white shirt, was recalled for a second session to explain gaps in the evidence he gave last January and discrepancies with other witnesses.

After being criticised for giving him an easy ride last time, the five members of the inquiry panel pressed Blair hard on when he committed Britain to military action to remove Saddam, and the legal basis for war.

Blair acknowledged he had discussed removing Saddam with US President George Bush as early as December 2001, amid heightened fears about his suspected chemical, biological and nuclear weapons following the September 11 attacks.

"Regime change was their policy, so regime change was part of the discussion. If it became the only way of dealing with this issue, we were going to be up for that," he said.

However, he insisted he had fought hard to persuade Bush to tackle the Iraqi leader through the United Nations, despite Saddam's track record of ignoring UN resolutions over his weapons programme.

They secured UN resolution 1441 in November 2002, which gave Saddam a final opportunity to comply with UN weapons inspectors, and London and Washington argued this gave them a legal basis on which to invade.

Blair's then top legal advisor, Peter Goldsmith, disagreed and told him so in two advisory notes on January 14 and January 30, 2003.

But Blair told the inquiry this advice was only "provisional" and noted that Goldsmith later changed his mind after talking with US lawyers.

In a written submission, Blair admitted he did not raise these concerns in talks with Bush on January 31, 2003 and instead "repeated my strong commitment, given publicly and privately, to do what it took to disarm Saddam".

Pressed on this by the inquiry, he said: "I accept entirely that there was an inconsistency between what he was saying and what I was saying there -- but I was saying it not in a sense as a lawyer, but politically."

He said that revealing Goldsmith's doubts would have damaged his efforts at the time to build support for a second UN resolution, saying: "It would have been a political catastrophe for us."

The inquiry, launched in July 2009, aims to identify lessons that can be learned from the conflict, to which Britain was the second largest contributor of troops.

Blair served as Labour prime minister from 1997 to 2007.

© 2011 AFP

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