Blair: I'm proud of what we've done in Iraq (but, comrades, you can't vote on it)

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Indy Politics

An unrepentant Tony Blair defied criticism of his hawkish stance on Iraq yesterday, declaring that he was "proud" to have ousted Saddam Hussein and that he had no regrets about the war.

The Prime Minister shifted his position by arguing that the conflict was justified because "regime change" was achieved in Iraq. Before the war, he avoided using this argument, as intervention to depose Saddam would have had dubious legal authority in Britain. Instead, he relied on the apparent existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, sought to limit the Labour rebellion over Iraq by admitting that the Government was wrong to suggest in its dossier a year ago that Iraq could deploy longer range weapons in 45 minutes. He told ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby programme that the Government "accepts the reprimand" from the intelligence and security committee because the "45-minute" claim related only to battlefield weapons. He appeared to blame Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, for not telling the Cabinet.

Opinion polls published yesterday added to the pressure on Mr Blair over Iraq. A YouGov survey found that almost 60 per cent of Labour Party members believe that he was wrong to go to war, while more than 80 per cent think he exaggerated the case for military action. Another YouGov poll showed that only a quarter of voters believe the Government told the truth about Saddam's weapons before the war.

Mr Blair gave a combative performance on BBC's Breakfast With Frost programme. Asked what he would have done differently on Iraq with the benefit of hindsight, he replied: "Nothing. I would have done exactly the same."

The Prime Minister said that people "can attack me as much as they want. I believe we did the right thing. I believe that our British troops performed absolutely heroically there. I do not apologise for Iraq. I am proud of what we have done." He denied making a U-turn by using "regime change" to validate the war, saying he had always argued that "we're getting rid of one of the most brutal, repressive, murderous regimes in this world's history". He went on: "It's regime change for a purpose and the purpose is not merely to stop the Iraqi people being killed literally in their thousands but also to make sure that he cannot continue developing the weapons programmes."

Mr Blair refused to accept that intelligence about Iraq's weapons was wrong. He told his critics to "wait and see" what the Iraq Survey Group, which is hunting for weapons in Iraq, says in its interim report due later this week.

The Prime Minister admitted he was concerned about security in Iraq but insisted that the situation on the ground was improving. "What we have delivered in that country is freedom and for all the difficulties, let's ... be proud of what we have done," he said.

Mr Blair received a boost last night when delegates to the party's annual conference in Bournemouth decided not to force a vote on Iraq in a foreign affairs debate on Wednesday, sparing the Prime Minister the embarrassment of a likely defeat. To the surprise of Labour officials, only 22 per cent of the conference voted for a dedicated debate on Iraq.

Officials said the ballot showed that delegates wanted to "move on" from Iraq. But some delegates said the officials had sought to persuade them against such a debate. One opponent of the action in Iraq said of the arm-twisting: "It was a case of 'Don't mention the war'.'' The RMT rail union also failed in its separate attempt to win a debate on an emergency motion calling for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq. It was blocked by conference organisers.

Mr Blair faces a defeat over foundation hospitals. Trade union anger at the Government's public-sector reforms increased yesterday when ministers rejected calls to end the "two-tier" workforce under which staff working for private firms running public services can experience worse conditions than those who work in institutions in public hands.

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