Blair: History will be my judge

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair defied critics of the war against Iraq last night by declaring, in effect, that he will be vindicated by history even if weapons of mass destruction are not found.

In a speech to a rare joint session of Congress in Washington, he insisted that Saddam Hussein's illegal arsenals would be found. But he also sought to lift the debate above the growing chorus of complaints about the intelligence used to justify the war.

"Can we be sure that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction will join together? Let us say one thing. If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that is at its least responsible for human carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive," he said.

"But if our critics are wrong, if we are right ­ as I believe with every fibre of instinct and conviction I have that we are ­ and we do not act, then we will have hesitated in the face of this menace when we should have given leadership. That is something history will not forgive."

He went on: "The risk is that terrorism and states developing WMD come together. When people say that risk is fanciful, I say we know the Taliban supported al-Qa'ida, we know Iraq under Saddam gave haven to and supported terrorists."

The controversy over the war with Iraq and the false evidence used to promote it to the British and American public has rocked Mr Blair much more than it has President George Bush. Having received a rapturous welcome when he entered the Congress, Mr Blair said it was a welcome that he was not used to in Britain.

Yet Mr Blair tempered his praise of the US as "a light of liberty" with a clear message that it had to do more to work multilaterally with its allies.

He preceded his remarks justifying the war against Iraq with a warning that "at least one state, North Korea, lets its people starve whilst spending billions of dollars on developing nuclear weapons and exporting the technology abroad".

The Prime Minister's address to Congress ­ just the fourth British leader to be so honoured ­ was assured, but his appearance later at a joint press conference with President Bush was less convincing. At one point, repeating that Britain stood by the claim ­ dropped by the US ­ that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger, he tried to bolster his case by saying Saddam had made such purchases from the African country in the 1980s.

Both leaders struggled to answer why no weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq. Mr Bush in particular gave a meandering, unfocused answer when asked.

"[Saddam] possessed chemical weapons and biological weapons. I strongly believe he was trying to reconstitute his nuclear weapons programme and I will remind the sceptics that in 1991 it became clear that Saddam Hussein was much closer to developing a nuclear weapon than anybody ever imagined," he said. "We won't be proven wrong ... We will bring the information forward on the weapons when they find them."

Mr Blair has risked a great deal by sticking so closely to Mr Bush, but he said the alternative was not an option. In his speech to Congress, he delivered a thinly veiled attack on states such as France which failed to support the war in Iraq.

"Any alliance must start with America and Europe," he said. "If Europe and America are together, the others will work with us. But if we split, all the rest will play around, play us off and nothing but mischief will be the result of it,.

"There is no more dangerous theory in international politics today than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitor powers, different poles around which nations gather."

He balanced this with a message to the US not to "give up on Europe" but to work with it, saying: "It's not the coalition that determines the mission but the mission [that determines] the coalition. I agree. But let us start preferring a coalition and [only] acting alone if we have to, not the other way around."

The Prime Minister said terrorism could not be defeated by military means alone and that a peace settlement in the Middle East was essential. "Here it is that the poison is incubated. Here it is that the extremist is able to confuse in the mind of a frighteningly large number of people the case for a Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel," he said.