- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

BEIJING (AP) — British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that going to war with Iraq was “the right thing to do” and that he had no doubt Baghdad tried to develop weapons of mass destruction.

“It is better to be rid of Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Blair told students at elite Tsinghua University.

The prime minister, nearing the end of a marathon Asian tour, was speaking a day after holding talks with Chinese leaders to heal strains in relations over the Iraq war, which Beijing opposed.

Mr. Blair said coalition inspectors in Iraq were still looking for evidence of programs to make weapons of mass destruction, but added, “I have no doubts that Iraq was trying to develop these weapons.”

The prime minister, with his characteristic wide grin back on his face after a difficult start to his Asian tour, seemed pleased to take questions during the informal, 45-minute session.

Mr. Blair is facing controversy at home over disputed weapons intelligence used to justify war in Iraq. He has rejected demands by opposition lawmakers to cut short his Asian trip and recall Parliament in the wake of the suicide of military adviser David Kelly on Friday.

Responding to a student who asked whether he had any regrets about going to war, Mr. Blair said, “I believe that no matter how difficult it was, it was the right thing to do. In terms of the security of the world and the suffering of the Iraqi people, it is better to be rid of Saddam Hussein.”

Such a session with students at Tsinghua — the alma mater of Chinese President Hu Jintao — is becoming a tradition for visiting foreign leaders. Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin both have spoken at the school and answered questions from student audiences.

During Mr. Blair’s session, the prime minister paced among about 100 students who sat at tables set up in the foyer of a modern chrome-and-glass building. The session was held in English and the mood was light, with Mr. Blair at one point complimenting a student on his bright green Hawaiian shirt.

“I do not believe that it is right for one country to go and invade another country and go to liberate its people,” Mr. Blair said in response to one question.

“But we do need to think as a world what happens when we have a country that is doing something very dangerous for the outside world and its own people.”

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