LONDON (AFP) – Former British prime minister Tony Blair on Wednesday (July 6) made a passionate defence of the 2003 war in Iraq, after a long-awaited official inquiry condemned it as woefully executed and based on flawed evidence.
His voice cracking with emotion, Mr Blair said he had “more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe” for some mistakes in the planning of a war that deeply divided Britain.
But, in a two-hour press conference, he stuck resolutely to his defence, as more than 100 anti-war protesters rallied in London, shouting: “Blair lied, thousands died” and “war criminal Tony Blair”.
“I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer” without Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Mr Blair told reporters.
The long-awaited Chilcot report offered a damning verdict on Britain’s role in the US-led war, detailing the flawed intelligence, questionable legal basis and “woefully inadequate” preparation for the occupation.
Iraq’s descent into violence and loss of life following the invasion saw 150,000 Iraqis killed by the time most British troops left in 2009.
The report said Britain deployed troops before diplomatic options had been exhausted.
It also highlighted how Mr Blair wrote to the US president George W. Bush in July 2002, the year before the war saying: “I will be with you, whatever.”
The inquiry found that “military action in Iraq might have been necessary at some point. But in March 2003 there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein”.
Shortly after Mr Blair responded to the report, current Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn – a top figure in the anti-war campaign – directly contradicted the former Labour premier.
“The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a catastrophe,” Mr Corbyn, who formed the Stop the War coalition, said in a speech to the families of British soldiers who died.
“I now apologise sincerely on behalf of my party for the disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq,” he said.
The war was justified at the time by claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but they were never found and the intelligence was later withdrawn.
Inquiry chairman John Chilcot laid the blame for this firmly on spy chiefs, clearing Mr Blair’s officials of “improperly” influencing a key intelligence paper published in September 2002.
The report also criticised Mr Blair for failing to challenge Mr Bush on the lack of planning for the post-invasion phase – and dismissed his assertion that the impact of local militia and Iran could not have been predicted.
Mr Blair, who was prime minister from 1997 to 2007, said: “I accept that especially in hindsight we should have approached the situation differently."
But he added: “There were no lies, Parliament and Cabinet were not misled, there was no secret commitment to war. The intelligence was not falsified and the decision was made in good faith.”
Iraq remains plagued by sectarian violence – on Sunday at least 250 people were killed by a Baghdad suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.
Mr Blair rejected claims the war led to the rise of Islamist groups in the region, saying Saddam was “himself a wellspring of terror” – but admitted many disagreed.
Relatives of some of the 179 British soldiers who died in Iraq said they would scrutinise the findings for possible grounds for legal action against Mr Blair and other officials.
“The inquiry has confirmed all our fears that these young men and women were deployed on the back of a falsehood,” said Mr Roger Bacon, whose son Matthew, 34, died in 2005.
The legality of the invasion was not in his remit, but Mr Chilcot said the process of deciding the legal basis for war was “far from satisfactory”.
“We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort,” he said.
The families are not the only ones considering legal action against Mr Blair. A cross-party group of MPs is also looking into the possibility, including of taking a case to the International Criminal Court.
The war, which at one point saw 46,000 British troops deployed, mostly in southern Iraq around the strategic oil hub of Basra, still looms large over British politics.
Britain’s scarring experience in Iraq has made it deeply wary of committing ground troops to international military interventions in countries like Syria and Libya.
Retired civil servant Chilcot said his report was “an account of an intervention which went badly wrong, with consequences to this day”.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “We cannot turn the clock back but can ensure that lessons are learned and acted on."