- Associated Press - Friday, January 21, 2011

LONDON (AP) — A full year before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair told his chief of staff the West should be “gung-ho” on toppling Saddam Hussein, a panel looking into the conflict disclosed Friday.

Mr. Blair returned to testify for a second time before a five-member panel scrutinizing Britain’s role in the unpopular war — having been recalled after witnesses raised doubts about sections of his testimony at an initial appearance a year ago.

As Mr. Blair was questioned, the panel released a series of letters and documents detailing the intense discussions inside the British government over how to respond to the perceived threat posed by Saddam.

In a letter to his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, on March 17, 2002, Mr. Blair said “the case should be obvious” for removing the Iraqi leader from power.

Nations that opposed dictatorships and that had supported action in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone “should be gung-ho on Saddam,” Mr. Blair wrote.

But he acknowledged it would be difficult to convince skeptics of the need for action, and acknowledged that Iraq’s weapons program 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,” Mr. 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. “So we have to reorder our story and message. Increasingly, I think it should be about the nature of the regime.”

In his reply, Mr. Powell told Mr. Blair they should focus “a Rolls-Royce information campaign” on human rights abuses by Saddam’s regime.

Mr. Blair’s administration has been repeatedly criticized for purportedly overstating the case for war and misrepresenting intelligence to increase public support for the conflict.

Another released document, a note prepared in December 2001 by another senior adviser, warned Mr. Blair that the legal case for military action would be “threadbare.”

Other documents showed that as late as January 2003, officials were still scrambling for legal grounds to justify the war.

In his testimony Friday, Mr. Blair repeated his view that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States meant that nations needed to deal with — not just contain — potential aggressors.

“I didn’t see Sept. 11 as an attack on America, I saw it as an attack on us — the West,” Mr. Blair told the panel. Relatives of some of the 179 British personnel killed during the U.K.’s six-year mission in Iraq packed the small hearing room as the former prime minister spoke.

He said some leaders, including then-French President Jacques Chirac, believed the threat of terrorism could be managed without major conflict.

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