By Ian Drury And Tim Shipman
Last updated at 1:39 AM on 22nd January 2011
- Blair says he ignored legal advice because he believed it was 'provisional'
- Admits he always stood 'shoulder to shoulder' with the U.S. on Iraq
- Offered his first apology to the families of those who died
Tony Blair was called a liar and a killer by families of Britain’s Iraq War dead yesterday after he finally expressed regret about the casualties.
Nearly eight years after the invasion, the former prime minister told the Chilcot Inquiry into the war: ‘I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life.’
But tearful relatives of some of the 179 slain servicemen shouted ‘It’s too late’, turned away from Mr Blair and marched out in disgust.
One grieving mother accused him of ‘killing my son’ and a father told him to his face: ‘You are a disgrace to your office.’
On a day of explosive evidence in Mr Blair’s second appearance before Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry released details of a memo written by Mr Blair in March 2002, a year before the war, in which he demanded a more ‘gung-ho’ approach to Iraq.
During four and a half hours of testimony, Mr Blair admitted that he put Britain on ‘track’ to war as early as the September 11 attacks in 2001.And he revealed that at an early stage he told U.S. President George W. Bush he would ‘be up for’ military action and would ‘not back out when it gets too hot politically’.
Mr Blair was also forced to admit his public statements about the legality of the war contradicted those of the then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith.
He said he was making a ‘political point’ not a legal argument ‘but I accept entirely that there was an inconsistency between what he was saying and what I was saying’.
He said he ignored advice from the Attorney General that the war might be illegal, and concealed the Government’s legal doubts from Mr Bush.
But it was when he launched an impassioned call for the West to consider military action against Iran and praised the Armed Forces, that watching relatives of the dead snapped. One weeping woman shouted: ‘Stop trying to kill them, then.’ Mr Blair inflamed passions further when he sought to apologise over the assertion during his first appearance at the inquiry nearly a year ago, that he had no regrets.
He told Sir John: ‘I took that as a question about the decision to go to war, and I answered that I took responsibility. That was taken as meaning I had no regrets about the loss of life and that was never my meaning or my intention.
‘I wanted to make it clear that, of course, I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life, whether from our own armed forces, those of other nations, the civilians who helped people in Iraq or the Iraqis.’
Another relative then shouted: ‘You’ve had a year to think about that.’
Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in Iraq in 2004, told Mr Blair: ‘You lied, your lies killed our son. I hope you can live with it.’ At the end of his testimony, Mr Blair was approached by Reg Keys, whose son, Lance Corporal Tom Keys, 20, was killed by a mob in southern Iraq in June 2003. Mr Keys said: ‘I just wanted to say that you are a disgrace to your office.’
Mr Keys told the Mail: ‘He wouldn’t look me in the eye.’
Valerie O’Neil, 53, of Halifax, West Yorkshire, lost her son, Kris, 27, in the war. She said: ‘His regrets were too little, too late. I don’t believe he was sincere in the slightest.’
Deirdre Gover, 64, whose son Flight Lieutenant Kristian Gover, 30, was killed in a helicopter accident in Basra, said: ‘I would like him indicted as a war criminal.’
Mr Blair was recalled by Sir John because the account he gave last year has been contradicted by other witnesses and official documents.
The inquiry issued a list of 106 questions on which they wanted further detail, including Lord Goldsmith’s recent claim that Mr Blair did not faithfully represent his views on the legality of the war.
Unlike his last appearance when he slipped unseen into and out of the inquiry, yesterday he used the front entrance. The security bill for the day could top £200,000. Tony Blair called for a ‘gung-ho’ plan to help Bush oust Saddam Hussein a year before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The former prime minister told the Iraq inquiry that he put the UK on ‘track’ to enforce regime change even as early as the 9/11 attacks of 2001.
He promised President Bush he could count on Britain regardless of the ‘political heat’ but worried about selling the war to the public.
Under tough questioning in his second appearance before the Chilcot committee, Mr Blair went further than before in spelling out how he privately agreed to military action 18 months before Parliament voted for it.
He said: ‘The beginning of the track that led to regime change was straight after September 11.’
Then, just before his key meeting with George Bush at the president’s ranch in March 2002, Mr Blair demanded a more ‘gung-ho’ approach and a ‘game-plan’ for ousting Saddam.
In a memo to his advisers he wrote: ‘A political philosophy that does care about other nations – eg Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone – and is prepared to change regimes on the merits, should be gung-ho on Saddam.’
Mr Blair recognised in the memo it would be ‘very tough’ to persuade an unconvinced public – and his own Labour MPs – that war was necessary.
He wrote: ‘My own side are worried. Public opinion is fragile. International opinion is sceptical.’
But his determination to go to war, whatever the doubts and opposition, was clear: ‘We have to reorder our story and message ... We have no inhibitions.’
Mr Blair demanded ‘a proper worked-out strategy on how we would do it’.
He said he needed to be able to present the Bush administration ‘with a far more intelligent and detailed analysis of a game-plan. I will need a meeting on this with the military folk.’
His justifications for the war make no mention of weapons of mass destruction, which he later claimed were the reason for sending in troops.
It makes clear that ‘the immediate WMD problems don’t seem obviously worse than three years ago’.
Mr Blair offered whole-hearted support to Mr Bush’s plans for regime change from the start, admitting he told the American president that if efforts to control the Iraqi dictator culminated in military action ‘we would be up for that’.
In December 2001, Mr Blair said he told Mr Bush: ‘I was in no doubt it would be beneficial for the world to get rid of Saddam Hussein and to get rid of his regime.’
The former prime minister told the inquiry: ‘What I was saying to President Bush was very clear and simple: “You can count on us. We are going to be with you in tackling this”.
‘I was saying to America, whatever the political heat, if I think this, I am going to be with you, I am not going to back out because the going gets tough. I am not going to back out when it gets too hot politically. I did it because I believed in it.’
Mr Blair said having given such pledges to Mr Bush, it would have been ‘profoundly wrong’ to back out later.
Despite fresh calls from Sir John Chilcot to agree to the publication of his letters to President Bush, Mr Blair continued to refuse yesterday, insisting they were ‘very private’.
He was quizzed closely on the failure to keep his Cabinet informed about the rush to war. Most ministers never saw an options paper detailing how regime change could be achieved.
He struggled to explain whey there was no substantive cabinet discussion on Iraq between April and September 2002 while military plans were being drawn up.
Mr Blair said his ministers could have been in no doubt about his plans, since he had made them in television interviews. ‘I made it absolutely clear that regime change was possible.’ QUENTIN LETTS: The thespy offered a wretched posture of apology
Just behind Tony Blair at the inquiry, a woman started to shake. First it was her shoulders, then it was her whole upper half. It became apparent that she was weeping. Mr Blair was uttering some sticky-voiced assertion that he regretted the deaths in Iraq.
He was trying to tidy up some business from last time. Trying to put a good gloss on his own respectability. And so, yes, of course he regretted the loss of life.‘Too late!’ a few sobbing voices commented, half-checking themselves.
Being decent Englishmen and women, they were reluctant to break the rules of the room. Sir John Chilcot did not have to do much to restore order. The dignity of the protest somehow made it all the more affecting.
But was this sun-tanned former prime minister with his male-model suit and his quasi-American cadences truly sorry?
Did his jaunty self-justifications, with their chopped hand gestures and dry chuckles and actorly feints, truly belong to a contrite soul?
Or was his attitude to that sort of thing encapsulated in the striking phrase he minted to describe the West’s current stance on Iran – ‘a wretched posture of apology’? A wretched posture. Takes one to know one.
The protests from the families at the very end of his evidence may have startled Mr Blair, although the TV pictures were cut before we could see his reaction. Reg Keys told him he was ‘a disgrace to your office’.
Another bereaved parent, Rose Gentle, said she hoped he could live with the accusation that he had ‘killed’ her son.
That was harsh yet understandable. For during yesterday’s evidence, Mr Blair came close to admitting that he misled Parliament when he took this kingdom to war.
During a long, intriguing passage of interrogation from efficient Sir Roderic Lyne, he came up with some dubious distinction between the ‘legal point’ of what he was being told by the attorney general, and the ‘political point’ of what he said to the House of Commons.
‘I was trying to keep up maximum pressure,’ he wheedled. ‘It was less a legal declaration than a political point.’ This was a euphemism. Let’s not delude ourselves. He lied.
Not that you would have thought it from the way he held himself yesterday.
The old thespy fraud is still as collected as ever. In fact he was cockier than at his last appearance in front of the inquiry. It was as though he had come with a determination to sound blase. Upbeat.
Mr Sure. Next target: Tehran.
He presented himself as a master of decisiveness.There was a gurgling confidence – almost a merriness – at the back of his throat as he remembered how popular his Government had been. ‘We were probably the most successful centre-left government in the world,’ he said delightedly.
And with that he threw a half-second’s glare at the inquiry’s members, as though to remind them of the mandate he had held. That brief look seemed to contain contempt. It seemed to say: ‘I was voted into office, unlike you lot.’
The trans-atlanticisms were numerous: ‘this guy’, ‘you crazy’, ‘our folk’, ‘real time’. His voice acquired a rising inflection.
He kept issuing the word ‘right?’, checking that his audience was yielding to his command, following his plausible sophistry in all its detail.
The one time he slipped into the truly ridiculous was when he insisted that Charlie Falconer was one of the ten best legal brains of his generation, and that that was the reason he became a law officer in the Blair government. Sure thing!
Apart from ‘a wretched posture of apology’ what struck me most was the way Mr Blair talked of ‘the leading ally’. Did he mean Britain? Or himself?
This question remains unresolved after yesterday: was our involvement in the Iraq War an act of freelance belligerence by the then prime minister? Did our soldiers fight – and die – because it was in the national interest?
Or were they sent off to war because this bold fox demanded it? They will love him no less in America. And that may be all that worries him.