Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will give testimony to Britain’s Iraq war inquiry next week, almost seven years after the US-led invasion of the country.
Blair, who backed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 despite strong opposition in the UK, at the United Nations, and from EU allies, will face a full day of questioning on January 29 at the Chilcot inquiry.
The former PM is the star witness at the inquiry, launched in November following the virtual withdrawl of most of Britain’s forces in June last year. Despite being criticized in some quarters for being too ‘establishment’, Blair’s appearance at the inquiry has proven so popular that a ballot was held for public seats.
Yet it comes just a week after damning revelations from the Justice Secretary Jack Straw, formerly foreign minister. The Sunday Times this weekend published a private letter from Straw to Blair, penned a year before the invasion.
In the letter, Straw warned Blair of the major legal obstacles surrounding a possible invasion, as well as pointing out how much preparation would need to go into planning for post-war redevelopment. The country quickly fell deep into sectarian violence after US President Bush declared the end of major operations.
Straw, who is set to face the inquiry this week, warned the PM that “regime change per se is no justification for military action” and “the weight of legal advice here is that a fresh [UN] mandate may well be required.” Such a mandate was never secured, and the letter will do nothing to convince UK voters that there was not a preordained plan to invade Iraq regardless of international opinion.
British public tough on Blair
A YouGov poll published for the Sunday Times last weekend showed 52 per cent of the British public believe the former PM deliberately misled the country. Meanwhile, a remarkable 23 per cent thought the former PM should be tired as a war criminal.
Last month, Blair admitted in a television interview that he would have backed the war even if he knew Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.
Blair, who quit as prime minister in 2007 and is now controversially the Middle East Quartet’s envoy, told the BBC it would “still have been right to remove” Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein because of the threat he posed to the region.
Former chief of staff comes to Blair’s aid
But in evidence on Monday, Blair’s chief of staff at the time, Jonathan Powell, robustly defended the former prime minister’s conduct.
He acknowledged public opposition to the Iraq war, saying the huge protest through London just weeks before the invasion “made a big impression on us”, and said they had feared it could cost Blair his job.
Previous inquiry witnesses have suggested Blair was committed to removing Saddam Hussein from the beginning, but while Powell accepted the PM had wanted him gone, he said he was determined to act through the United Nations.
The Iraqi leader had repeatedly violated UN resolutions concerning his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and this was used to justify the invasion, even though there was no explicit approval from the UN Security Council.
At a meeting in 2002 at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, Powell said Blair had promised support for the United States in pressuring Iraq, but said this was in order to gain influence with Bush – and denied war was inevitable.
“It was absolutely clear we were not signing up to war on this, we were going down the UN route and giving Saddam a chance to comply,” Powell said.
But Blair has faced almost constant criticism that his government manipulated data to fit the case for war.
A 2003 Australian parliamentary inquiry heard from a senior Australian intelligence analyst, Andrew Wilkie, who said the Australian government “lied every time. It skewed, misrepresented, used selectively and fabricated the Iraq story.”
Prime Minister Howard later distanced himself from an inquiry in the US, saying Australia relied almost entirely on British and American intelligence.