Blair's champion draws angry response with account of the war and its aftermath

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The Independent Online

The Blair government received a drubbing last night during a lively public debate on the aftermath of the Iraq war organised by The Independent, 11 days before elections in the country.

The Blair government received a drubbing last night during a lively public debate on the aftermath of the Iraq war organised by The Independent, 11 days before elections in the country.

More than 750 people crowded into a hall tucked behind Westminster Abbey to hear the debate. It asked: "Have critics of the Iraq war been vindicated?"

The Government fielded Eric Joyce, the Labour MP for Falkirk West, before the fiercely partisan audience, which heckled him at every opportunity.

Mr Joyce was joined by Independent columnist Johann Hari, a supporter of the Iraq war, to argue against the paper's Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, and the American journalist Charles Glass on the panel chaired by Simon Kelner, The Independent's editor-in-chief.

Fisk may have surprised some in the audience when he said: "The critics of the war have not been vindicated. I never believed the British and American governments would lie to us to much. I never believed that the insurrection would so quickly gather pace and be so disastrous to the occupation, and I never believed the occupation would be so flawed and so brutal."

Audience members who wanted to know what the experts predicted for the future of Iraq were given a bleak assessment by Fisk, who had flown from Baghdad for the event. He said the upcoming "flawed" elections would be as unrepresentative in their results as polling organised by Saddam Hussein's regime, "not because the people are forced to vote what they are told to vote, but because the Shiites will indeed vote, and the Kurds will indeed vote, but the Sunni minority will not vote because either they are intimidated or because they don't want to".

Asked whether coalition troops should withdraw from Iraq, Fisk called for the Americans to set a pullout date. "They've got to talk to the insurgents - and they will - and then they must go." Glass added that the British presence was "irrelevant".

Hari insisted, however, that the Iraqis themselves should decide after the 30 January election whether to seek a military withdrawal. Mr Joyce said a pullout would be "premature" until the Iraqi security forces were fully operational and able to take over.

The parliamentary private secretary to Mike O'Brien, a former foreign office minister who is now energy minister, pleaded with the audience not to "rush to judgement" on Iraq. Before critics of the war decided whether they had been vindicated, he said, "they should consider whether life in Iraq had substantially improved."

The panel members returned to the well-trod arguments that have punctuated the war and its aftermath, with Mr Joyce accusing the anti-war camp of holding a fundamentally pacifist position.

Fisk retorted that he thought Britain should have fought the Second World War. "But Baghdad is not World War II, Saddam was not Hitler and Blair is definitely not Winston Churchill."

An oil analyst asked why the media had not dealt more in depth with the real reason for the Iraq invasion, prompting Glass to point out that even for the Iraqis, it was obvious that the war was all about oil.

The exchanges became even more heated as questions from the floor dealt with Mr Blair's "hypocrisy" in dealing with the Sharon government in Israel, and the imprisonment of terror suspects without trial. Mr Joyce was subjected to cries of "shame on you" from the gallery as he attempted to defend the government's policy.

An anti-war protester who stood up to shout "stop killing our kids" resisted being escorted from the hall. The audience applauded when he was allowed to remain in his seat.

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