Blair unrepentant, but still tormented by legacy of war

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair told British troops during a visit to Basra in May 2003: "I would like to think that, in maybe a year or two years time, it's going to be possible for some of you to come back here and see the changes in this country that have arisen from what you've done today."

Some of the servicemen in his audience have indeed been back since, but not to do what that the Prime Minister envisaged.

For three years, the shadow of Iraq has fallen over Mr Blair, defying his hopes that the country would come right and that the invasion would fade to a distant memory.

At first, Mr Blair and his ministers hoped that the post-war instability would be over by December 2003. A year later, they were making the same predictions about December 2004.

Three years ago, Mr Blair hoped Iraq would not be an issue at the general election pencilled in for 2005. It was. His decision to go to war on a false prospectus about non-existent weapons of mass destruction came to symbolise the public's lack of trust in him personally and politicians generally.

During the election, the leaking of the legal advice from the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, hastily rewritten on the eve of war, made Iraq a central feature of the campaign. Labour officials believe Iraq and related issues of trust cost the party 2 percentage points on polling day.

Mr Blair was lucky that the main opposition party was impotent on the issue because it had supported the war. Even so, Mr Blair saw his majority cut by 100. Although still healthy by historical standards, it didn't feel like that.

Three years ago, Mr Blair would have dismissed as a bad dream former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi statement yesterday that his country is in a state of "civil war". This completes the Blair Iraqi nightmare. Ministers have spent the past few weeks trying to tell us it was good news that the country did not descend into civil war after the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra.

Mr Blair has paid a heavy political price for his strategic decision, probably taken a year before the war, to go "shoulder to shoulder" with George Bush come what may.

The Prime Minister judged that "being there" would buy Britain precious influence with the United States. Three years on, the balance sheet looks pretty one-sided. The British-inspired effort to get a new United Nations mandate for military action fizzled out. Foreign Office warnings about the lack of a plan for the aftermath of the invasion fell on deaf ears in Washington and the painful, gruesome consequences are all too apparent today.

But Mr Blair hopes that the history books will be kinder to him than the instant political obituaries when he stands down. If - and it is still a big one-- democracy takes root in Iraq, the toppling of Saddam may be regarded as an example not of American might but of the liberal imperialism Mr Blair had started to sketch out before the 9/11 terrorist attacks propelled the world into a dangerous new era. One day, Mr Blair hopes, the ends will justify the means.