- 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.

“The other view, which is my view, is that this thing is deep, its potential to wreak enormous and devastating damage is huge, and we have to confront it,” Mr. Blair told the panel.

Britain’s government established the inquiry to examine the case made for the war and errors in planning for post-conflict reconstruction — but it 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.

Much evidence heard since the hearings began in November 2009 has focused on accusations that Mr. Blair offered then-U.S. President George W. Bush support for an invasion as early as April 2002 — a year before legislators approved Britain’s involvement.

The atmosphere before Friday’s session was soured when British authorities refused to publish notes — seen by the panel — that Blair sent to Mr. Bush ahead of the war.

Mr. Blair supported the decision not to make the documents public, as leaders “have to be able to communicate in confidence,” but acknowledged that he had offered his support.

He denied that he had told Mr. Bush “whatever you decide to do, I’ll be with you.”

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

Mr. Blair, prime minister between 1997 and 2007, faced sharper questioning than in his initial appearance before the panel, when he made an impassioned defense of his decisions, and urged current national leaders to deal promptly with Iran’s nuclear program.

When Mr. Blair arrived at the inquiry venue, he was greeted by a small group of anti-war demonstrators who raised banners and chanted “Tony Blair, terrorist,” in an echo of massive protests in the buildup to the conflict almost 8 years ago.

Inside the inquiry room, Mr. Blair offered an apology as he concluded his evidence.

“Of course, I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life — whether from our own armed forces or those of other nations, the civilians who helped people in Iraq, or Iraqis themselves,” Mr. Blair said.

Members of the audience, which included relatives of some of those killed, shouted: “Too late, too late,” as the ex-leader spoke.

Two female audience members turned their backs on Mr. Blair, and then walked out. An official brought tissues into the hearing for another woman who burst into tears.

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