Video: Tony Blair on Iraq

By Tom Brokaw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/16/2004 7:31:25 PM ET 2004-04-16T23:31:25

Tom Brokaw:  Prime minister, you and the president are determined to stick to the July 1st date for the beginning of turnover of power in Iraq, but even as the U.N., which is working hard to form a provisional government, there are great concerns about the security situation there. What if this all leads to a civil war?  Wouldn’t it be better to have the conditions right before you pick an arbitrary date on the calendar?

Tony Blair, British prime minister:  I think part of the conditions, though, in making sure that we transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis is — is essentially what is happening is that those elements that are trying to provoke a civil war in Iraq, which there isn’t at the moment, these are limited groups of people. They’re terrorists. They’re fanatics. They’re former Saddam people.

What they’re trying to do is to provoke a situation in which there’s such chaos that they can tip the country into general disorder. Now one element that they’re trying to use in that is obviously to say, “This is an occupation. The Americans and British wish to stay there. They wish not to hand over power to the Iraqis.” And therefore the political timetable and the transition — transition to Iraqi sovereignty is actually an important condition of creating the right circumstances for security.

Brokaw:  But what we have learned, painfully in the last 12 months, is the most carefully laid plans can be quickly derailed by those very groups that you just described. And if you have — a government in place and then civil war breaks out, isn’t that an enormous setback for Iraq?

Blair:  Well, I think the very reason why we’re working hard with the Iraqis to make sure that we have a — a broad-based government with the U.N., to make sure we’ve got international support. The very reasons why we’ve got large numbers of soldiers there trying to keep order is that —s o that the majority view in Iraq, and it is the majority view, that want a decent and peaceful and democratic future, prevails.

Now it — you know it’s been difficult. It’s been very, very tough. It’s been tough particularly for those troops that have been in the line of fire. And we — we’ve had tragic losses of people as a result of that.

But the only way to go is — is forward. And we — we — we can’t afford to fail in this venture. And the reason why I feel confident that in the end that we will succeed is because what we’re trying to do is exactly what the vast majority of Iraqis want.

And that is to create a sovereign, independent Iraqi state that is stable and democratic. That’s what they want. They’ve had three decades of tyranny. They don’t want religious fanatics or Saddam-people taking their country over. But the question is can we make sure that we provide sufficient security for the political process to work.

And one part of that is actually to say, “Look, this isn’t about us occupying your country, taking your wealth, seizing your oil or any of the rest of the rubbish that is thrown at us. It is actually about handing power to you.” And therefore that 30th of June date’s an important part of the process and the strategy.

Brokaw:  The chairman of the — U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, said in Baghdad yesterday that the violence of the last two weeks is a symbol of our success there. Saying that we were making so much progress, they had to strike back.

Many find that an odd characterization of what has been happening in the last two weeks. Do you share his judgment? That that was a symbol of our success?

Blair:  Well, I know exactly what he means, which is this — and it’s something I constantly say to people. (CLEARS THROAT)  Why is it that these people are fighting so hard to stop us?  There’s no doubt about what we’re trying to do.

We are trying to reconstruct the country. The schools and hospitals are now open. The universities are — are trying to expand — and on a basis not of support for a dictatorial regime but on the basis of genuine learning.

We’re trying to hire people to create jobs. We’re trying to make sure you’ve got a police force and a civil defense force that doesn’t torture people but that keeps proper law and order. We’re trying to make sure that Iraq isn’t dominated by one ethnic or religious grouping but is an Iraq for all of the people there.

Now why are these people trying to stop us? They’re trying to stop us because they can see that if we’re allowed to continue this progress, then everything they stand for is defeated. And that — you know that’s one of the reasons why I always try to say to people, “This — whatever you thought about the war — you may have agreed with the war. You may have disagreed with the war — but now what is going on in Iraq is a historic struggle that doesn’t just involve the future of Iraq but the future of the whole region.  And, indeed, our own security in the wider world.”

Brokaw:  Someone that you know very well, Robin Cook, who is your former foreign minister, was writing in the British press today it’s not just about intent.  It’s also about means.  He described this trip as the most important diplomatic mission of your career, saying that you had to persuade the president to change from the military equation to winning hearts and minds.

British military commanders in Iraq have been quoted as saying they believe American military tactics are disproportionate and too heavy-handed. Did you share any of those views with the president in your meeting with him?

Blair:  Well, I actually don’t believe that’s what either the British military commanders think or in fact what is happening.

We need the military and the political reinforcing each other. We’re not going to be able to do this without military action and without being prepared to be firm and tough. And if you’ve got a situation where you have innocent civilian contractors dragged from their cars and brutally mutilated and murdered, you can’t sit back and do nothing. Otherwise you’re sending a signal of weakness right across the country.

On the other hand, you’ve got to have a political strategy for the Sunnis as well as the Shi’as, for the Kurds. For every part of Iraq that says to people, “Look, if you’re prepared to play by the rules and be of this new and democratic Iraq, there’s a place for you in it.”

So you — you know I don’t — you know the greatest mistake — people always say, whenever I’m — I’m here it’s my — it’s my greatest diplomatic mission since the last diplomatic mission. (CHUCKLES) But I mean for me, it — it’s always a question of the military and the political going together. You — you can’t do this without being prepared to use force, but force alone won’t succeed. So we need the one reinforcing the other. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Brokaw:  In the minds of many people, there is no doubt that we did a brilliant job planning for the military mission and a terrible job of planning for the peace or the postwar mission. That we’ve lost day after day after day the battle for the hearts and minds.

Blair:  Yeah, but I — I don’t really see it like that either. I mean — look — when you —

Brokaw:  Osama bin Laden is more popular now than he’s been in the last couple of years. Many of the people in Iraq — who supported us coming in there — are now hostile towards us.

Blair:  Well, what you find in a situation like this is that some of the things that you anticipate and should anticipate don’t happen. And there are other things that inevitably will unfold and do happen. And you’ve got to try and prepare for both sorts of those eventualities.

So, for example, people thought we would have a humanitarian crisis in Iraq. We didn’t. What we’ve got is a situation where as we make progress, those elements — they’re minorities, but they’re armed and they’re vicious and they will stop at nothing. Those minorities that don’t want a different type of Iraq are going to stop us.

I don’t — you know the only preparation you can make for that is to have your political and your military strategy. And we’ve got both of those things. And that’s we’ve got to — to make sure succeeds.

And, you — you know it — you’re right. There are people in the Middle East who want to try and use this in order to say this is part of a — a war against the Muslim world. You know you still find people in—in Europe, never mind the Middle East, saying this was all about seizing the Iraqi’s oil.

Now why are these people saying these things? They’re saying it for a mixture of anti-Americanism.  And because what they want to do is to use any situation like this in order to engulf the world in a clash between Muslim and Christian or between Arab and Western world.

Now we have got to show, by our actions, by what we achieve in Iraq, that that propaganda is false, as indeed it is. Because the very first military conflict I was engaged in was in Kosovo, where we were protecting innocent Muslims against Serbia, which is a Christian country, engaging in ethnic cleansing.

Brokaw:  You wrote recently, “We’re locked in a historic struggle.  And the outcome will determine more than the fate of the Iraqi people.”  You said, “If we don’t stay the course, in effect, the hope of freedom and religious tolerance will be snuffed out.”

But in fact, we have now, a year after the end of so-called major combat operations, a whole different kind of chaos going there.  A different kind of anarchy.  In which there is very little religious tolerance from one group to another.  And in fact there’s very little hope for freedom on the part of some of these people.

Blair:  It’s interesting, when the — the — BBC and — I think a few other broadcasting corporations undertook a poll in Iraq a couple of months ago, they found that a significant percentage of the population were optimistic.  And when they — they asked what type of government they want, they basically wanted a broad-based democratic and secular government.

And — you know again I would go back to the — the same point.  Which is that I don’t doubt there are groups of people in each of these main ethnic or religious — areas in Iraq that want to provoke conflict between the groupings.  But actually, that is not the majority view in Iraq.

For example this Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.  He does not have the support of the majority of Shi’as.  The majority of Shi’as support a broad-base secular government.  The transitional law that was negotiated with the Iraqis that will be the precursor of a new constitution for Iraq was drawn up in negotiation with all the different groups in Iraq.  And has at its heart ethnic and religious tolerance. Religious freedom.

You’ve got the people worshipping at the Shi’a shrines that weren’t allowed to do that under Saddam. And plus of course human rights and respect for proper judicial process. So, you know, you go back to the same thing all the way through. You’ve got two sides to this now. You’ve got one side which is trying to achieve the state based on respect for human rights and religious tolerance. And you’ve got another lot there trying to stop it.

Now as I say in the end for me this is a — an equation that may be difficult in the sense that it’s hard to make this process work.  But it’s not difficult to choose which side we should be on in respect to it.

Brokaw:  If the Ayatollah Sistani who is the most important and influential of Shi’a leaders in Iraq decides in the near term or long-term future that he doesn’t want to share power with say the Sunnis or the Kurds, would that be acceptable?

Blair: Well, I don’t believe he will do that.  And indeed he’s shown absolutely no signs of doing that.  So far he’s actually supported the idea that you have to share power amongst all groupings.  So, you know, I think rather than take that upon a hypothesis I think we should — we should respect the fact that the transitional law based on tolerance was in the end supported by all groups in Iraq.

Brokaw:  You said in your news conference with the president today that leaders in the region with whom you’ve talked are relieved that Saddam Hussein is out of power, that they feel safe.

Blair:  Definitely.

Brokaw:  Why don’t they come forward and say that publicly? Why not — why don’t they call a meeting and say we’re grateful to the West for what has happened in Iraq?

Blair:  Well, it’s difficult.  Difficult to them.  And that’s why I think that we’re at the beginning of a process of change here.  I mean there is a lot of anger and alienation on the Arab street. They’re very worried about the whole Palestinian issue.  And it’s very hard for leaders in the Arab world to stand up and say it was right that the conflict took place to remove Saddam Hussein.

But if you — if you think about it from that point of view here’s a regime, the Saddam Hussein regime, that started two major wars in the region.  As I said today a million casualties in those wars. That threatened the outside area, that caused mayhem and havoc around the whole of the region.  For them it’s far better that he’s gone.

And the other thing is, and this is what they’ll — they’ll watch to see the — in a sense the — the — the strength of our own commitment. If we get Iraq working as it should be and could be then that is a big, big propulsion towards change right across that region.  And it needs it.  I mean there is too much poverty there.  There is too much extremism and fanaticism. There is too little democracy and human rights.

Brokaw:  I know it’s hard for those leaders to do that.  But it’s harder yet for American mothers or British mothers to send their sons and their fathers and their husbands over there and to die for their cause for which they’re not getting public credit from the leaders in the region who are the greatest beneficiaries of all this.  Why can’t we put more pressure on the Arab leaders who are our so-called allies in this cause to come forward?

Blair:  Well, I think you’ll find when you — you speak to them that they at the very least are prepared to look forward now. And you will find very few of them wanting to go back over the divisions in the conflict. And — and I know it’s difficult. It is very difficult too when we have sent young soldiers to die in Iraq.

And it is a constant sense of responsibility for — for the president, for myself, for all leaders that have done that.  But I think the best tribute we can make to them is to make sure that we get the job done, that we see it through.  And I — I watched this morning — two wives of American soldiers that are out there in Iraq and have just been told that they won’t be coming home as soon as they thought.

And I thought their behavior was quite remarkable dignity and strength. And they gave me enormous encouragement. That — that I think the armed forces, the British and the Americans that I’ve spoken to out there, and I’ve been twice out to Iraq, they know that this is important. They can see the difference that they’re making. You know, they can see the fact that if people believe that — that this is going to work then they can be part of it.

You know, just — just remember what it must have been like living under Saddam. If you criticize the regime you’ll be tortured or shot down in the area that we’ve got Basra — 30 years there’s been absolutely nothing done. No — no investment in the infrastructure, no help for the people.  Many of them unemployed.  Many of them unable to make a living in the way that they want to.

A potentially fantastic port virtually lying idle.  You know, and meanwhile many of the Shi’as either killed or driven from their home.  They’ve got a chance of — of freedom and democracy and hope now. And that’s why it’s important we continue.  And of course it’s difficult. It’s difficult for the families of the service men and women who are out there.  It’s difficult for the Iraqi people.  It’s difficult for all of us in this situation.  But it’s a struggle that is worth winning.  Not just for them but for us also.

Brokaw:  As you know there’s a great debate in this country as there is in your country about the failure of intelligence.  You and the president took your countries to war on the premise that there were weapons of mass destruction.  And there was a direct connection to terrorist organizations in Iraq. Weapons have not been found.  And the connection to terrorism is tenuous at best in the judgment of most people.  We’re supposed to have two of the best intelligence agencies in the world.  What went wrong?

Blair:  I think we will know better if something went wrong and what it was if it went wrong once the Iraq survey group complete their inquiries. And one of the things I find very frustrating about this situation is that we — we lurch between two extremes.  You know, we either say on the one hand, well, there should have been all this weapons, they should have been found immediately. Or if they haven’t been found than nothing existed.  There was no threat.  What on earth were we doing?

I mean I’ve got pretty good experience at the British intelligence agency. And we share that intelligence with the British people. We published it and we shared it.  Now I think when the Iraq survey group make their final report we will be able better to gauge exactly what took place and exactly what happened to the weapons he undoubtedly had. Because he used them.

And I still find it very hard to believe that he voluntarily destroyed those weapons in circumstances where for years he’d hidden them from U.N. inspectors, he deceived us, he lied about it.  And he’d actually had plans to develop and create more of those weapons.  Now we’ll have to wait until they report before we will know fully exactly what has happened.  And, you know, when that’s done we will share that with people. And then we can have that debate.  And we’ve got an inquiry, and you’ve got an inquiry to assess the intelligence on it.

Brokaw:  But can you understand the frustrations of the people in your own party and the members of the Presidents party in this country that a year after so called opera—combat operations ended Saddam Hussein is in jail but there is an anarchy in many part of Iraq.  Osama bin Laden is alive and apparently based on what we heard this week still functioning.

Blair:  Well, we all want to deal with it.  But how are we going to deal with it.  That’s the question. And — and I have a very, very clear view.  What happened after September the 11th for me was that all the calculations and risks changed.  Al-Qaida carried out terrorist acts before September the 11th.  We knew that there were rogue states developing weapons of mass destruction.

After September the 11th for me the balance of risk changed.  We could no longer wait for this risk to materialize, we had to go out and try to deal with it.  We started with al-Qaida in Afghanistan.  We’re still doing everything we possibly can to defeat this threat.  Now in Europe you’ve got Madrid.  You’ve got threats in France; you’ve got threats in the present in Germany.  We just spoiled a major operation in — in Britain.

This is happening the world over.  That’s one part of it.  The other part of it is highly repressive unstable states developing nuclear chemical or biological weapons.  Because the thing that I fear and the balance of risk that changed me after September the 11th is that if those two things ever came together there would be complete catastrophe for the world in which we live.

And that is not a risk that we should run.  So, yes, of course, you know, we’ve still got to — to deal with al-Qaida.  We’ve still got major things that we need to do in terms of weapons of mass destruction. Although I say to you, I went out to Libya a few weeks ago, which has now voluntarily offered up not just information but actually equipment on its nuclear, on its chemical weapons program.  Which were more extensive incidentally than we thought from the intelligence that we had.

We’ve got Iran at least back with the atomic energy agency. Although we’ve still got major concerns there.  We’ve got North Korea now in dialogue with China.  We’ve got the network of the former Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan being shot down around the world.  You know we are taking action.  But it’s a struggle.  And it’s a long struggle.

And one part of that struggle is what’s happening in Iraq.  Because if we succeed there we deal not just — not to the blow in terms of security to the terrorist, but we defeat their propaganda.  Because a major part of what they want to do is to say the Americans and the western world are against them as Muslims.  Now that is not true.

I mean we know it is not true. But they are saying that.  And if we then prove in Iraq that actually our desire is to bring freedom and justice to people than that is a major victory in that battle.  As I say not just in terms of security but in terms of ideas and values too.

Brokaw:  Final question, prime minister.  The president was asked repeatedly the other night if he’d made any mistakes in the last year. He searched his soul and couldn’t come up with one at the press conference.  Any mistakes that you would like to acknowledge now that you’d like to turn back?

Blair:  You know, every time I’m asked this question by the British press I say that that’s for me to know and you guys to find out.  Look, I don’t doubt that when people look back they’ll say there could have been certain things done differently.  And things take unexpected turn.  But I don’t think there’s a great deal of point in dwelling on that.

What we’ve got to dwell on at the moment is getting the job done.  Making sure we’ve got the right political and military strategy to see it through and to get it done. And we will.  And I — you know, this is not a — this is not easy.  It’s an uneasy struggle to be engaged in.  But we’re engaged in it, we’re determined to see it through.

And I think, you know, the strength of America is showing at the present time is and will be seen by many people round the world in retrospect as an important part of creating a more secure and a more stable world for the future.

Brokaw:  Thank you, prime minister.

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