Image: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair testifies
Parbul TV via Reuters
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks at an inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq War, in central London Friday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/21/2011 10:08:17 AM ET 2011-01-21T15:08:17

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.

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.

The timing of the decision for military action is an important issue for opponents of the war, who accuse Blair and Bush of being set on invasion regardless of its legality or whether it had backing from the United Nations.

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Blair, who sent 45,000 British troops as part of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, repeated his message from his first appearance that the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks had changed the calculus of risk, meaning they had to deal with Saddam as he posed a threat to the world and was refusing to comply with the United Nations.

The decision to go to war was one of the most controversial episodes of Blair's 10-year premiership which ended in 2007, leading to massive protests and accusations he had deliberately misled the public over the reasons for the invasion.

As 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, 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," 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."

Must 'reorder our story' on war
"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," 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," he wrote.

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

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

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Another released document, a note prepared in December 2001 by a second senior adviser, warned 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, 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," 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.

Facing a far more forensic probe of decisions he had taken, Blair said regime change in Iraq was on the cards immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks unless Saddam changed tack.

"If it became the only way to deal with this issue then we were going to be up for it," he said, adding he had persuaded Bush to seek U.N. backing.

A statement he gave to the inquiry also revealed he had ignored advice from the government's top lawyer, given in January 2003 warning an invasion of Iraq would be illegal without a specific U.N. resolution.

Attorney General Peter Goldsmith only changed his mind shortly before the invasion, and Blair said he viewed the earlier advice as "provisional" and believed it would change when Goldsmith became aware of the U.N. negotiations.

Blair 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," Blair told the panel.

Private Blair-Bush notes not published
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.

The atmosphere before Friday's session was soured when British authorities refused to publish notes — seen by the panel — that Blair sent to then-U.S. President George W. Bush in the run-up to the conflict.

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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 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," Blair said.

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 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 eight years ago.

Much evidence heard since hearings began in November 2009 has focused on accusations that Blair offered Bush support for an invasion as early as April 2002, a year before legislators approved Britain's involvement.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Protesters, police clash at Tony Blair book tour

  1. Closed captioning of: Protesters, police clash at Tony Blair book tour

    >>> blair is revealing a new memoir this week.

    in "a journey: my political life ," he dishes on his ten years as prime minister and behind-the-scenes with leaders of the u.s. the book is already a best-seller on both sides of the atlantic, not a hit with everybody. in island today anti-war protesters threw shoes and eggs at blair and chanted he had blood on his hands. michael elliot, is deputy managing editor of "time" magazine. you can find an essay in this week's issue of "time" magazine. i'm a little surprised at the reception he got in ireland . good to say he wasn't hit by anything.

    >> he's a controversial figure in europe, also in britain and ireland . for all the political achievements of tony blair which i think are many, there is a significant population in ireland that only sees him through the prism of the iraq war . the iraq war is very unpopular in europe.

    >> i'm curious about his opinion on president obama . they have met and here is what he says of the president. this is a man with steel in every part of his. in his own way every bit as tough as george, meaning george bush . the president is dealing with prime minister david cameron , not tony blair . your sense that the u.s.-u.k. relationship and tony blair 's take on president obama .

    >> i think blair genuinely admires obama . i think he thinks he has a mental toughness he finds quite admirable. i spoke on the phone to blair a few day ago and he made a point of saying to me how much he admired obama 's decision to start doing middle east peace talks early in his administration rather than later. blair gave his time to work things through. what he doesn't talk about in his passages in obama is what he does talk about on clinton , and that is this wonderful political touch that he constantly refers to when he's talking about clinton . and that's not evident when he's talking about obama . his admiration of obama is the sense that he is intellectually tough, that he knows what he wants to do and i think all of that blair finds quite interesting .

    >> do you think were he still the prime minister of the uk , he would get along well with president obama ?

    >> oh, sure. absolutely. i think the depth and the frequency of the contact between the political leaders in the u.s. and the u.k. continues virtually -- it virtually doesn't matter what political tradition it is two leaders come from. they talk to each other, they have a lot in common and almost always they find ways to get along. i'm not sure blair would have found a way to get along with obama .

    >> he got along famously with bill clinton . there's clear chemistry. surprisingly for many that observed the relationships across the pond here, he got along well with george bush and they're diametrically opposed types.

    >> came from very, very different personal backgrounds and positions. yet they found something that enabled them to bond with each other. i think what blair really admired about bush was his calmness under fire. he talks about this over and over and over again in the book, the sense that bush was very, very rooted, he knew what he wanted to do and that kind of gave him a serenity and calm which blair at one point says i only got right at the very end of my time in office which made him completely comfortable with the decisions he had to make. there's a marvelous passage in the book where blair is with bush in the white house on september 20th , 2001 right before he goes to the huge speak to congress. blair turns to bush and says, are you nervous? and he says, not really. i've written a speech. it says what i wanted to say. i think blair found that quite extraordinary. and also praise-worthy. there's a terrific passage when he say it is most stupid thing that anyone ever said is that george bush is stupid. and he goes on to say you can't be dumb to be president and all the way --

    >> he talks about president bush as a man of conviction. he talks about president clinton as a man who absolutely got politics.

    >> there are two aspects of his admiration for clinton . one, just like obama , he thinks clinton has this worked out idea of what you go into politics for, a sort of intellectual mindset that helps guide your decisions as political leader. the other thing that clinton has that he talks about all the time is this common touch, this ability to smooz with people and make them feel good which, of course, he was a master at.

    >> he was an absolute master of that. we'll have you come back michael and talk

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