Blair 'profoundly' regrets lives lost in Iraq war
Former prime minister Tony Blair told Britain's Iraq war inquiry Friday that he profoundly regretted the loss of life in the conflict, sparking angry shouts of "too late" from dead soldiers' families.
During a four-and-a-half hour hearing, he also criticised US President Barack Obama's soft approach to Iran and urged the West to use force if necessary to curb the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions.
Making his second appearance before the inquiry, an emotional Blair addressed the condemnation he faced following his first hearing last January when he said he had "no regret" about removing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"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 said.
"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 relatives of some of the 179 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.
"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, as Blair left the hearing.
Outside the central London venue, dozens of anti-war demonstrators 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 to explain gaps in his previous evidence and discrepancies with other witnesses.
After criticism that they had given him an easy ride last time, the five panel members pressed Blair hard about when he committed Britain to military action and the legal basis for war.
But the former premier, 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 criticised Obama for being too soft on Tehran, saying his appeal to Iran in his 2009 Cairo speech achieved little.
"They carry on with the terrorism, they carry on with the destabilisation, they carry on with the nuclear weapons," he said.
Blair added: "They'll carry on doing it unless they are met by the requisite determination and if necessary, force."
The inquiry, aimed at learning lessons from the Iraq war, was launched after the withdrawal of British troops from the country in July 2009. Blair, who was Labour prime minister from 1997 to 2007, has been its star witness.
Pressed Friday about when he decided Saddam must go, Blair said he discussed this with then US president George W. Bush as early as December 2001, amid heightened fears about Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction 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 said he fought hard to persuade Bush to tackle the Iraqi leader through the United Nations.
London and Washington argued that UN resolution 1441, agreed in November 2002, gave them a legal basis on which to invade.
But Blair's then top legal advisor, Peter Goldsmith, argued that it was not and told him so in two advisory notes; on January 14 and January 30, 2003.
Blair has been accused of ignoring these, but he told the inquiry the advice was only "provisional" and noted that Goldsmith later changed his mind.
In a written submission, Blair admitted he did not raise the doubts in talks with Bush on January 31 and instead "repeated my strong commitment, given publicly and privately, to do what it took to disarm Saddam".
© 2011 AFP