Friday, January 21, 2011

Families reject Blair apology over Iraq dead




By DAVID STRINGER
The Associated Press
Friday, January 21, 2011; 12:52 PM

LONDON -- Former Prime Minister Tony Blair offered an emotional apology for the deaths of soldiers and civilians in Iraq, as he testified Friday to Britain's inquiry into the war.

The 57-year-old Blair, making a second appearance before the panel to clarify evidence he gave to the same panel a year ago, also urged Western leaders to confront a growing threat posed by Iran.

Addressing the five-member panel scrutinizing Britain's role in the unpopular war, Blair acknowledged that in phone calls and messages in 2002 - months before Parliament approved Britain's role in the conflict - he reassured U.S. President George W. Bush and told him: "You can count on us."

Alongside his evidence, the inquiry published a previously unseen 2002 memo from Blair to his chief of staff, in which the leader called for a "gung-ho" approach toward Saddam Hussein's regime.

Critics of the war hope the inquiry will conclude Blair had been determined to back the U.S. invasion, whether or not it was supported by the public, Parliament or legal opinion.

Following his initial hearing, Blair was sharply criticized for suggesting he had no regrets over the decision to join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

"That was taken as my meaning that I had no regrets about the loss of life," Blair said Friday, his voice faltering with apparent emotion.

"I want 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 themselves," he said.

Some bereaved relatives heckled the former prime minister as he expressed his remorse.

Members of the audience shouted: "Too late, too late," while two women turned their backs on Blair, and then walked out. An official brought tissues into the hearing for another woman who burst into tears.

"Your lies killed my son, I hope you can live with yourself," Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon Gentle was killed while serving in Basra, southern Iraq, in 2006, shouted as Blair completed about four hours of testimony.

"You're a disgrace to your office and our country," Reg Keys, whose son was killed in 2003, shouted as Blair left.

A note prepared by a senior adviser in December 2001 - and published Friday - warned Blair that the legal case for military action would be "threadbare."

In the newly published March 2002 memo to his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, Blair - aware that the United States was pushing the case for regime change - said Britain "should be gung-ho on Saddam."

But he acknowledged it would be difficult to convince skeptics, and said that Iraq's weapons program - later to become a key justification for military action - didn't "seem obviously worse than 3 years ago."

"The persuasion job on this seems very tough. My own side are worried. Public opinion is fragile. International opinion - as I found at the EU - is pretty skeptical," Blair wrote.

"People believe we are only doing it to support the U.S., and they are only doing it to settle an old score," he wrote.

Blair's administration has been repeatedly criticized for allegedly overstating the case for war. In his note, the ex-leader told Powell "we have to reorder our story and message," in order to sway opinion.

Under questioning, Blair angrily denied the decision to invade Iraq had emboldened neighboring Iran, or encouraged Tehran to press ahead with its attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

"This is a looming and coming challenge," Blair said, calling for decisive action on Iran. "It is negative, it is destabilizing, it is supportive of terrorist groups. It is doing everything it can to impede progress in the Middle East."

Britain's inquiry won't apportion blame, or establish criminal or civil liability. Its recommendations, expected by the end of year, will focus instead on how better to handle situations like the tense run-up to the war and the bloody attempt at nation-building that followed.

Earlier this week, British authorities refused to publish notes - seen by the panel - detailing discussions between Blair and Bush.

Blair insisted the decision had been made because leaders "have to be able to communicate in confidence," rather than to hide evidence of any pact.

"I was telling Bush, you can count on us, we're going to be with you in tackling this, but here are the difficulties," Blair said.

Blair largely deflected questions over apparent inconsistencies in his earlier evidence.

He stood by claims that France scuppered prospects for a U.N. Security Council resolution specifically authorizing the war - evidence which other officials have questioned. The ex-leader also insisted he was sincere in the belief that Iraq had been harboring weapons of mass destruction.

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