LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday the "Downing Street memos" paint a distorted picture, and he insisted that the Iraq war was not predetermined by the United States.
"People say the decision was already taken. The decision was not already taken," he said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
Blair added he was "a bit astonished" at the intensive U.S. media coverage about the leaked memos, which actually were leaked minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting between Blair and top government officials at his Downing Street office.
According to the minutes of the meeting, Sir Richard Dearlove, then chief of Britain's intelligence service, said the White House viewed military action against Saddam Hussein as inevitable following the Sept. 11 attacks.
President Bush "wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD," read the memo, seen by the AP. "But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
Memo taken out of context
In the interview, Blair said raising such concerns was a natural part of any examination of the cause for war.
"The trouble with having a political discussion on the basis of things that are leaked is that they are always taken right out of context. Everything else is omitted from the discussion and you end up focusing on a specific document," he said.
"It would be absolutely weird if, when the Iraq issue was on the agenda, you were not constantly raising issues, trying to work them out, get them in the right place," he said.
Details of the memos appeared in British newspapers last month but the news in Britain quickly turned to the May 5 election that returned Blair to power. In the United States, however, the revelations raised criticism among opponents of the Bush administration.
"I am a bit astonished at how this has received such coverage in the U.S. because the fact is, after the memo was done, we went to the United Nations," Blair said.
"What people forget about that memo is that that (it) occurred nine months before the conflict. ... So whatever issues there were, we resolved them ultimately by saying we have got to give it one last chance to work peacefully."
Blair also said it was "vitally important" for coalition troops to remain in Iraq "until the job is done."
"That is vitally important. If we defeat these insurgents and terrorists in Iraq — and we'll only defeat them with the Iraqi people we will beat that terrorism and insurgency worldwide," he said.
Blair's comments came a day after Bush, in a nationally televised address, promised to keep U.S. forces in Iraq until the fight is won.
"The most important thing we can do in Iraq is concentrate on the fact ... that what is happening there is a monumental battle that affects our own security," Blair said.
"You've got every bad element in the whole of the Middle East in Iraq trying to stop that country (from getting) on its feet and (becoming) a democracy.
"The world for both of us changed after Sept. 11," Blair said. "What happened for me after Sept. 11 is that the balance of risk changed. I took the view that if these people ever got hold of nuclear, chemical or biological capability, they would probably use it."
Sept. 11 "changed the whole picture. It changed the politics of how we dealt with the threat. And I still believe in a time to come it will be seen as important that we took that decision."
‘Glad we took the action that we did’
Blair, who met Monday with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, went on to defend the U.S.-led war.
“When I stood next to the new prime minister of Iraq, somebody who has had five of his relatives assassinated by Saddam ... and realized that he was in power because of the democratic votes of 8 million Iraqis, then I was glad that we took the action that we did and made sure that Iraq was no longer governed by a dictatorship, but by a democracy.”
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