It was wrong, I wasn't, Blair insists
Tony Blair yesterday offered a crowded House of Commons his most direct apology yet for deficiencies in the intelligence dossiers he presented to MPs to help justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
But he again denied misrepresenting the much-discredited intelligence he had received from M16, and refused to apologise for the war itself in the face of renewed allegations that the remaining justification - regime change - is illegal in international law.
A war to enforce UN resolutions was not illegal, the prime minister insisted after Michael Howard suggested that he had "not accurately" reported the intelligence assessment to MPs.
"Will you now say sorry for that?" asked the Conservative leader, who had been careful to say in advance: "I supported the war, it was the right thing to do." For the umpteenth time since the post-war occupation began to go sour, Mr Blair avoided the word "sorry". Instead, he said: "I take full responsibility and apologise for any information given in good faith that has subsequently turned out to be wrong. That is entirely proper. I have already done so."
His aides insisted later that he had added nothing to what he has frequently said. But his unqualified use of the present tense in front of the Commons itself - rather than at his party conference - may appease even some Labour critics, who believe the controversy is finally running out of steam.
Even so, he got no favours from ally Peter Mandelson, who used a speech last night in Hungary to argue that a second UN resolution and greater UN involvement would have been a better solution to Iraq.
In any case, Mr Blair went straight back on to the offensive on what he still regards as the substantive issues. "What I do not in any way accept is that there was any deception of anyone. I will not apologise for removing Saddam Hussein. I will not apologise for the conflict. I believe it was right then, is right now and essential for the wider security of that region and world."
Labour loyalists cheered him throughout the bitter exchanges with Mr Howard and Charles Kennedy a week after the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) confirmed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but not the ambition to seek them.
Other Labour MPs joined critics in trying to corner Mr Blair for aspects of his pre-war statements, including the final collapse of the claim that WMD could be launched within 45 minutes - an issue not raised in the pre-war debate on March 18 2003, Mr Blair reminded the house.
The exchanges prompted Mr Kennedy to say Mr Blair had made a crucial admission that "we always made it clear that the only way of enforcing the UN resolutions was regime change", though the context of the remark suggests he meant it only if Saddam Hussein refused to comply with UN disarmament resolutions.
"Tony Blair must clarify the position. Did he sign up to regime change in April 2002 at his meeting with President Bush in Texas? If he did, why was this policy - which is not acceptable in international law - kept secret from the British people?"
Mr Blair's answer was: "We went to war because we took the view that we had to enforce the UN resolutions, that we could not continue, not post-September 11, with a situation where a country was in breach of UN obligations ... that was the reason given at the time." Mr Blair's irritation with the same line of questioning was evident in his jibe that Mr Howard was seeking to exploit anti-war feeling for political gain.
The Tory leader had had four different positions on the war this year, "three too many" for an aspiring prime minister, he said.