Blair hits back over Iraq legal advice

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Tony Blair said Friday he pledged to support the US-led invasion of Iraq despite receiving legal advice against military action, as he returned for a second appearance at Britain's Iraq war inquiry.

The former British prime minister was recalled to the inquiry in London to explain discrepancies in the evidence he gave one year ago when he first testified about the decision to go into Iraq in 2003.

Around 30 protesters holding up signs saying "Bliar" rallied outside the London conference centre where the inquiry is being held as the ex-premier arrived amid heavy security and a large police presence.

Dressed in a dark suit and appearing confident, Blair admitted that he should have kept the government's top legal adviser, attorney general Peter Goldsmith, better in the loop over efforts to secure a UN resolution.

"In retrospect I would have had him alongside the negotiating team and it would have been better if he had been speaking with the American lawyers back in November 2002," Blair told the inquiry.

In a written statement to the inquiry, Blair said he received advice from Goldsmith on January 14 and January 30, 2003 suggesting a further UN resolution was needed for military action to be legal.

But he insisted this was "provisional" and noted that Goldsmith later changed his mind, adding that if he had not, "then the UK could not and would not have participated in the decision to remove Saddam (Hussein)".

Documents released ahead of the resumption of public proceedings, following a six-month break, showed Goldsmith criticised Blair for publicly suggesting Britain could invade without further UN backing, despite his advice to the contrary.

Blair meanwhile said he had given US President George W. Bush a "strong commitment" in January 2003 that Britain would do "what it took" to disarm Saddam, despite the legal concerns.

He told the inquiry that the Bush administration was already set on a policy of regime change in Iraq by the time the two leaders met at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas in April 2002.

"It was obviously going to be on the agenda. I was always going to make it clear, I did make it clear, we would be shoulder to shoulder with America," he told the inquiry.

He also said that Al-Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States were the turning point.

"Up to September 11 we had been managing the issue, after September 11 we decided we had to confront and change," Blair said.

The inquiry summoned Blair for a second appearance over gaps in the evidence he gave in his first appearance and on apparent discrepancies between his account and official documents and other witnesses' testimony.

Blair on Friday also defended his decision to refuse to release secret memos he wrote to Bush.

"The notes to President Bush were very private. They were written when I wished to get a change or adjustment to policy. They had to be confidential," he said in the statement.

"The personal relationship was a vital part of the country's strategic relationship."

In his highly charged appearance before the inquiry last year, Blair said he had no regrets about the toppling of "monster" Saddam Hussein and delivered a robust defence of the invasion.

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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