- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

BRIGHTON, England — Prime Minister Tony Blair, seeking to unite his Labor Party, acknowledged that intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq was wrong, but insisted that the world was safer with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in prison.

In a rousing address to the party’s annual conference, interrupted twice by delegates booing and heckling, Mr. Blair defended the war and said Labor members — even the war’s opponents — must believe that he backed the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq in order to protect Britain.

“The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons, as opposed to the capability to develop them, has turned out to be wrong. I acknowledge that and accept it,” said Mr. Blair, whose primary reason for backing the U.S.-led war was the threat posed by those weapons.

“And the problem is, I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam. The world is a better place with Saddam in prison, not in power.”

The war has eroded public faith in Mr. Blair’s judgment as he prepares to run for an historic third term.

His personal ratings have sunk, and some Labor delegates think he has neglected the party’s bread-and-butter issues, such as schools and hospitals.

Still, Mr. Blair said he wanted to confront the contentious issue of Iraq head-on.

“I know this issue has divided the country. I entirely understand why many disagree,” Mr. Blair said. “So I do not minimize whatever difference some of you have with me over Iraq. And the only healing can come from understanding that the decision, whether agreed with or not, was taken because I believe, genuinely, Britain’s future security depends on it.”

He called on Britain to “unite in our determination to stand by the Iraqi people until the job is done.”

With national elections expected early next year, Mr. Blair heralded a series of new policies and urged delegates to campaign hard for re-election.

He pledged to boost vocational education, offer a greater choice of schools and hospitals and extend affordable child care for working families.

Mr. Blair said the 100-year-old Labor Party never has won three successive terms in power.

Although intended as a springboard for elections, the five-day conference has been eclipsed by the kidnapping of Briton Kenneth Bigley in Baghdad and the continuing bloodshed in Iraq.

Two British soldiers died yesterday, killed by insurgents who ambushed a British army convoy near the southern city of Basra, bringing the total of British troops killed in Iraq to 67.

Anger over the war among some Labor members was evident. One delegate, who later identified himself as Hector Christie, shouted at Mr. Blair from the conference floor: “You’ve got blood on your hands,” before being led away.

Most hecklers were protesting the Iraq war, but one, Tom Leek, said he was angered by the government’s attempts to ban fox hunting. Several thousand hunting enthusiasts rallied outside the conference hall as Mr. Blair spoke.

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