Blair: I did not mislead Parliament over Iraq

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair today defiantly declared he was right to go to war against Iraq and that he had not misled the public or Parliament.

But he said Saddam Hussein had concealed his weapons of mass destruction and predicted only that "evidence of WMD programmes" would be found.

The Prime Minister insisted, however, that the intelligence he published last September that Saddam could deploy WMD in 45 minutes had been right at the time.

And he said the only mistake in the second "dodgy" February dossier was that it had not properly credited an Internet thesis, despite being accused by the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday of "misrepresenting" the status of the document to MPs.

He also said terrorism and rogue states possessing WMD were the main security threats facing the 21st century.

Mr Blair, in shirtsleeves, faced a grilling for an hour and a quarter on Iraq as part of his evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee – made up of all select committee chairs.

He was asked about allegations that the House had been deliberately misled, and responded: "Obviously I refute that entirely.

"The fact is that we put before the House of Commons and indeed the country the case that we made.

"I should tell you right at the very outset I stand by that case totally. I'm quite sure we did the right thing in removing Saddam Hussein."

The Prime Minister told the committee: "I'm quite sure we did the right thing because, not merely was he a threat to his region, to the wider world, but it was an appalling regime that the world is well rid of.

"And I think that the British Army and the British people can be proud of the part they played.

"So I refute any suggestion that we misled either Parliament or the people totally. I think we made the right case and did the right thing."

Quizzed by the FAC chairman, Donald Anderson, Mr Blair said the committee had cleared No 10 of "sexing up" the September intelligence dossier and claimed he had made clear to the Commons the mistake made in the second.

The Prime Minister said: "All I would like to say is that on the central allegations – that's the reason why you looked into it with such urgency – on that central allegation that myself or anyone else inserted information into last September's dossier against the wishes of the intelligence agencies, that allegation was totally false.

"And I don't know anyone who now believes that allegation to be true."

Asked what lessons had been learned, Mr Blair replied: "The only thing I would point to is the only thing we have already been very clear about.

"In relation to the second paper, one part of that should have been sourced to a reference work.

"It wasn't. When we discovered it wasn't sourced to a reference work, we made that clear."

Mr Blair went on: "I think we did the right thing in relation to Iraq. I'm well aware of the fact that people want to revisit the essential argument as to whether we did the right thing.

"I believe we did the right thing. I stand 100 per cent by it."

The FAC had said "the jury is still out" on whether the Government's claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were true.

Mr Blair insisted: "I'm afraid that in that regard, for me the jury is not out. It's not out at all."

He continued: "I think it's perfectly clear that, as we made plain in the September dossier last year, that Saddam, once he realised as he did back last September, that weapons inspectors were coming back in, was then going to engage in an active programme of concealment."

Asked if he would concede that, if no weapons of mass destruction were found, the case for war was faulty, Mr Blair replied: "I don't concede it at all that the intelligence at the time was wrong.

"I have absolutely no doubt at all that we will find evidence of weapons of mass destruction programmes.

"Let us allow the Iraq Survey Group to get going and do its work."

Mr Blair was asked whether he wanted to repeat his September claim that Saddam had plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons which could be deployed in 45 minutes.

The Prime Minister replied: "I certainly would want to reiterate the validity of that intelligence as we received it last September."

He continued: "That intelligence, I have no doubt at all, was valid intelligence.

"I also, however, draw attention to the fact that we said in the September dossier, not once but several times, that the moment he (Saddam) realises inspectors may come back in, then he will engage in a programme of concealment.

"And that we believe, incidentally, from the information we are getting now, is precisely what he did."

Mr Blair appealed for the Iraq Survey Group to be allowed to present its findings.

"I simply tell you my view is that I'm very confident that they will find the evidence that such programmes existed and that Saddam was developing them but tried to conceal them."

The Prime Minister dismissed the idea that he had always been bent on war and said he had always wanted to resolve the issue peacefully.

And he insisted that if either the Cabinet or Parliament had come out against the conflict, it would not have happened.

Mr Blair also said America was right about the threat posed by terrorism and WMD.

"I think this is the security threat of the 21st century. The issue we will have to confront is not big powers fighting each other, America and Russia.

"There's not going to be a big battle between European powers. That's not the security threat.

"The security threat is disorder and chaos on the back of terrorism of a virulent kind and rogue states with weapons of mass destruction. That's what I believe."

Mr Blair declined to predict when UK troops would leave Iraq, but indicated that he expected their numbers to be reduced significantly over time.

He did not believe that Britain would have "tens of thousands" of troops in Iraq in four years' time, but suggested it was possible that some military presence may remain at that point.

"We should stay until we have got the job done, but we will only stay there until the job is done," he said.

Mr Blair compared the situation with that in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, where international troops remain in place years after conflicts have ended.

"Sometimes that requirement for peacekeeping troops to stay in a place for a significant period of time is a better alternative than allowing civil war to break out," he said.

Mr Blair said he did not have "specific intelligence" on why Saddam did not use WMD during the recent war, but said that he believed the Iraqi dictator began a programme of concealment of his illicit weapons when it became apparent last September that inspectors were on their way.

"One advantage of this programme of concealment is that it places an inhibition on his ability to use these weapons quickly," he said.

Mr Blair declined to put a deadline on how long the Iraq Survey Group had to find evidence of WMD.

The group had only just begun its work, which would involve interviews with scientists and experts who should be able to lead it to the evidence, he said.

The BBC and the Government should "agree to disagree" over the weapons of mass destruction controversy and end their bitter dispute, the corporation's director general said today.

Greg Dyke said the public wrangle had gone on for too long. "This issue has now dominated the headlines for two weeks and I suspect it's time for both sides to agree to disagree and move on," he told a radio conference in Birmingham.