Blair's partial apology for Iraq war fails to impress critics

27 October 2015

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Sunday he's sorry for "mistakes" made in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but he didn't regret bringing down dictator Saddam Hussein.

"I can say that I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong because, even though he had used chemical weapons extensively against his own people, against others, the program in the form that we thought it was did not exist in the way that we thought," Blair said in an interview with CNN.

Blair was referring to the claim that Saddam's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction, which was used by the US and British governments to justify launching the invasion. But the intelligence reports the claim was based on turned out to be false.

The ensuing war and dismantling of Saddam's government has plunged Iraq into chaos, resulting in years of deadly sectarian violence and the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor of ISIS.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis, more than 4,000 US troops and 179 British service members were killed in the lengthy conflict.

As the most high-profile foreign ally of former US President George W Bush in the Iraq invasion, Blair has found his legacy overshadowed by the war, with questions and criticism following him wherever he goes.

Blair's partial apology has drawn widespread criticism in the British media, with immediate accusations that he was attempting to "pre-empt" the publication of the report into the conflict by John Chilcot.

 The former British prime minister expressed regret over the failure to plan properly for the aftermath of the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein and the false intelligence that was used to justify it. But he said he would "find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam".

Blair has already been made aware of the criticism to be levelled against him in the report.

His decision to apologise only for the false intelligence that was used to justify the invasion and the failure to plan for the aftermath prompted speculation that these are the only criticisms which Chilcot will make of Blair.

The Daily Mail went so far as to headline its report: 'Faux sincerity. Weasel words. The Spin King strikes again'.

The consequences of Bush's decision to take America into Iraq have also repeatedly reared its head this year among candidates vying for the 2016 US Republican presidential nomination.

Blair told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that besides the flawed Iraq intelligence, he also apologizes "for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime".

"I find it hard to apologize for removing Saddam. I think, even from today in 2015, it is better that he's not there than that he is there," Blair said.

Almost twelve years ago on December 14, 2003, US troops found former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein hiding in a farmhouse cellar. His capture eventually led to his conviction and hanging for a 1982 massacre in Dujail, Iraq.

Saddam was notorious for his ruthless oppression of Iraqi citizens during more than three decades of dictatorship that also kept sectarianism under a tight leash. He launched ruinous wars against neighbours Iran and Kuwait, and used chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq.

But present day Iraq is still under heavy strain from sectarian tensions and is struggling to deal with the threat of ISIS, the Sunni Muslim extremist group that has imposed its brutal rule on significant parts of the north and west of the country.

Blair acknowledged to Zakaria that there are "elements of truth" in the view that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the principal cause of the rise of ISIS.

"Of course, you can't say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015," he said. "But it's important also to realize, one, that the Arab Spring which began in 2011 would also have had its impact on Iraq today, and two, ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq."

More broadly, Blair said, the policy debate on Western intervention remains inconclusive.

"We have tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq; we've tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya; and we've tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria," he said. "It's not clear to me that, even if our policy did not work, subsequent policies have worked better."

Asked by Zakaria how he feels about being branded a "war criminal" for his decision to go into Iraq, Blair said he did what he thought was right at the time.

"Now, whether it's right or not, that's for -- everyone can have their judgment about that," he said.

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