Blair suggests Iraq has become a disaster but blames 'terrorists'

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair has come close to admitting that the Iraq war has been a "disaster" but insisted that British troops will not be withdrawn prematurely.

In an interview with Al Jazeera television's new English language channel, the Prime Minister made his frankest admission about the continuing crisis in Iraq when he was asked by Sir David Frost whether the western intervention had "so far been pretty much of a disaster".

He responded: "It has, but you see what I say to people is why is it difficult in Iraq? It's not difficult because of some accident in planning, it's difficult because there's a deliberate strategy - al-Qa'ida with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other - to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war."

But Mr Blair insisted: "We are not walking away from Iraq. We will stay for as long as the government needs us to stay." He added: "Our task has got to be to stand up for the moderates and the democrats against the extremists and the sectarians. They are testing our will at the moment, and our will has not to be found wanting."

His admission was seized on by opponents of the war last night and will revive demands for the Government to call an independent inquiry into what went wrong in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "At long last the enormity of the decision to take military action against Iraq is being accepted by the Prime Minister. It could hardly be otherwise as the failure of strategy becomes so clear."

He added: "If the Prime Minister accepts that it is a 'disaster' then surely Parliament and the British people, who were given a flawed prospectus, are entitled to an apology."

Mr Blair conceded that it could take a generation to resolve the problems in the wider Middle East but did not think British troops would need to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan for that length of time.

In a separate interview with The Washington Post, Mr Blair said he did not believe the Democratic Party's victory in last week's Congressional elections would lead to the Bush administration failing to "fulfil what it said it would do" in Iraq.

Asked if he thought the results signalled growing momentum for a reduction in American troops there, he said he was sure President George Bush "will see this through". He went on: "I don't think you will see the administration backing away from fulfiling what it said it would do. There should never be any doubt, whether it's in terms of myself or the President. We have said that we will stay as long as the Iraqi government needs us to do so."

Mr Blair used his interview with the newspaper to make a plea to Mr Bush to joining international efforts to combat climate change. The Prime Minister said America had a "big opportunity" to present a strategy on beating global warming to the world and encourage everyone else to join in, he said. "There's a big opportunity for the administration and for America on climate change," he said.

Mr Blair said the President had made a "pretty bold" statement when he urged the US to end its "addiction to oil" in his last State of the Union address. He should follow that up with "a framework that can help cure that addiction", and pitch it to the rest of the world saying, "Come on, everybody has got to do this."