Charles Kennedy: Why I'm demanding an apology from Tony Blair

The Government may have spun us into war, but it mustn't be allowed to smear its way out
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The Independent Online

In the most contemptible manner, the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary are trying to paint all those who were against the war in Iraq as either Saddam appeasers or Saddam supporters.

In the most contemptible manner, the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary are trying to paint all those who were against the war in Iraq as either Saddam appeasers or Saddam supporters.

It appears that their case now is that if you did not support war in Iraq, you must have been in favour of a strengthened Saddam Hussein - free to torture, free to develop new weapons of mass destruction, free to threaten the region. "That," said Jack Straw yesterday on the BBC, "is the position of the Liberal Democrats, which dare not speak its name in terms of their policy."

I responded immediately and demanded an apology. To suggest any such thing is an insult to the integrity as well as the intelligence of the millions of people - like me - who disagreed with them. Borne out of desperation, in defence of an illegal and unnecessary war, this is also a political tactic designed to smear. "Charlie Chamberlain" they sneered at me in the corridors of Westminster in the run-up to the war. Nothing has changed.

Let's be quite clear what I think about Saddam Hussein. I have articulated it again and again - before, during and after the war. I said that Saddam was a tyrant and his regime was unacceptable. I had no desire to see him continue to rule Iraq. But that is also true of the leadership of other countries.

The military regime in Burma has for decades held its people in contempt. What about Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Kim Il-Jong in North Korea? There is no suggestion we should go to war in these countries. Why? Because when we send our soldiers to fight for the country, it must be because all other efforts have failed and it is a last resort.

Now let's deal with the argument that Saddam would have emerged strengthened unless Tony Blair and George Bush had waged war.

First - that was not the argument the Prime Minister relied on at the time. He said we had to go to war because Saddam was a direct threat backed up by weapons of mass destruction. We argued that the evidence was unclear. We said the United Nations inspectors should be given time to find out. We wanted a co-ordinated international response to whatever threat he might pose - supported by the UN Security Council.

In fact, the Prime Minister couldn't make an argument for regime change as a condition for going to war because that's illegal under international law. He knew that Parliament would never have voted in favour of it. Of course, we now believe that privately he did sign up for a policy of regime change in April 2002 as I argued on these pages last week - but that's a separate matter.

Eighteen months later, we know we went to war on a false prospectus. The weapons did not exist and Iraq is dangerous and unstable. The reality is that it is the international terrorists who have been strengthened. Iraq is now a recruiting ground and a hotbed for Islamic fanaticism. Indeed, as the report of the Iraq Survey Group proved last week - the policy of containment of Saddam Hussein was working. Saddam was far weaker that even the patchy intelligence suggested.

Supposing, as we argued, that the weapons inspectors had been given more time? Hans Blix was seeking weeks, not years, to establish the situation in Iraq. Instead of rushing ahead with a unilateral military action involving the deaths of thousands of people, the international community would have been given a considered picture of Saddam's real capabilities.

The UN - which would have been united over this issue, rather than divided as it was by the Bush/Blair axis - could have decided on a course of action. I would argue that it could and should have designed a continuing containment policy that maintained military sanctions, and maintained rolling inspections and monitoring so that Saddam had no chance of restarting what we now know were his non-existent WMD programmes.

Such a programme of action ought to have been designed in such a way that it did not punish ordinary Iraqis as the former sanctions system did, because Saddam himself was in charge of spending the oil-for-food money. It could and should have aggressively targeted Saddam's illegal revenues and overseas financial assets so that his scope for manoeuvre was curtailed and it could and should have retained a military contingent in the region to act as a deterrent to Saddam's ambitions.

Expensive? Undoubtedly. But achievable if the political will had been there and surely better than what we now have - a breeding ground for terrorism and many, many lives lost.

The Government may have spun us into war, but it must not be allowed to spin and smear its way out. In February 2003, on the eve of war, Tony Blair said in the House of Commons that Saddam could save his regime by complying with the UN's demands. When Jack Straw next contemplates suggesting that the millions of us who opposed the war were supporting Saddam - he might remember that. Then he should apologise.

The writer is leader of the Liberal Democrat Party