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Iraq war was right even if intelligence wrong, Blair
Updated: 2004-07-15 08:47

British Prime Minister Tony Blair mounted Wednesday a vigorous defence of the US-led war to oust Saddam Hussein but took full responsibility for major flaws highlighted by an official report on Britain's pre-war intelligence on Iraqi weaponry.

"I cannot honestly say I believe getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all," Blair told parliament an hour after the publication of the report. "Iraq, the region, the wider world is a better and safer place without Saddam."

Britain's Lord Butler poses for photographs with a copy of his report at a news conference in central London, July 14, 2004. [Reuters]
In a barnstorming performance, a defiant Blair welcomed the findings of an official inquiry which slammed as unreliable much of the pre-war intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The five-month-long inquiry, led by ex-civil service head Lord Robin Butler, had been "comprehensive and thorough... and we accept the report's conclusions", Blair told lawmakers.

Blair, who has faced calls to resign over the Iraq war in recent months, said the decision to commit British troops was the "hardest he had ever made".

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair leaves Downing Street in London, July 14, 2004. [Reuters]
But he had become convinced after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States that a stand had to be taken against rogue states with mass destruction arms, and "the place to make that stand was Iraq".

If the evidence used to justify war was wrong, or had been misrepresented, the buck stopped with him, the prime minister said.

"I accept full personal responsibility for the way the issue was presented and therefore for any errors made," Blair said.

Butler's report condemned large sections of British intelligence on the threat posed by Iraq's weaponry as unreliable, but did not blame Blair or his ministers for deliberately hyping up the case for war.

This was crucial, Blair said.

Butler found that "no one lied. No one made up the intelligence. No one inserted things into the dossier against the advice of the intelligence services," the prime minister noted.

"Everyone genuinely tried to do their best in good faith for the country in circumstances of acute difficulty. That issue of good faith should now be at an end."

Blair's arguments for Britain to support the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 largely hinged on then-leader Saddam possessing stocks of chemical and biological weapons that posed an immediate threat to the West.

The premier highlighted a conclusion in Butler's report saying it would be "rash" to assume that no evidence of such programmes would ever be found.

"But I have to accept, as the months have passed, it seems increasingly clear that at the time of invasion Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy," Blair conceded, while insisting the war was correct anyway.

Blair said he had "searched my conscience, not in a spirit of obstinacy but in a genuine reconsideration in the light of what we know now", to consider whether the war was justified.

With "hindsight", Blair told MPs, the case against Saddam would probably have been made in a different way, with separate reports from the intelligence services and the government, but the end result would have been the same.

Blair immediately faced criticism from those opposed to the Iraq war that the Butler report had not gone far enough, and accusations that he had taken the country to war on the basis of faulty intelligence.

Opposition Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said the remit of the Butler inquiry had made it impossible for it to deal with the most important issue of the political judgment that informed the decision to go to war.

"The unavoidable conclusion of the content of the Butler report (is) that we committed British troops to action on the basis of false intelligence, overheated analysis and unreliable sources," said former cabinet minister Robin Cook, who resigned over the war.

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