Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spent six hours today defending his decision to lead Britain into the Iraq war.
Appearing before a government-appointed panel, he denied charges by some of his former aides that he and U.S. President George W. Bush secretly decided to topple Saddam Hussein almost a year before the actual invasion of Iraq.
Instead, he said, the question of how to confront Hussein "was an open question" when he joined Bush for high-profile talks at the then-president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002.
"Even at that stage," Blair told the panel, "I was raising the issue of going to the UN" for the solution to the Iraq crisis.
Saddam After 9/11
But if Blair took pains to refute any suggestion that he rushed into war, he left no doubt today that he was convinced Hussein was a "monster" who possessed weapons of mass destruction and had to be disarmed.
He told the panel that his thinking about Saddam "dramatically" changed after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States. He said the attack underscored the urgency of minimizing the risk of any future attacks by anti-Western forces armed with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
Antiwar demonstrators protest outside the conference hall where Blair is giving evidence.
"You could not take risks with this issue at all. And one dimension of it -- because we were advised, obviously, that these people would use chemical or biological weapons or a nuclear device, if they could get hold of them -- that completely changed our assessment of where the risks for security lay," Blair said.
"And just so that we make this absolutely clear: This was not an American position. This was my position and the British position."
Blair added, "I believed beyond doubt Saddam Hussein had WMDs," or weapons of mass destruction, and that "the intelligence was compelling and we had to act on it."
Blair returned repeatedly during the day to this central point: that he believed after 9/11 that "no risks" could be taken with the possibility of a WMD attack and that he still believes so today.
"I hold this fear stronger today than I did back then because of what Iran is doing," he told the panel.
Interestingly, Blair did not distinguish in his remarks between the dangers of WMD attacks posed by "rogue states" and those posed by and militant groups or terrorist networks.
"From September 11 onwards...Iran, Libya, North Korea, Iraq...all of this had to be brought to an end," he said.Evidence OF Iraqi WMD
Blair's argument appeared aimed at defusing charges by many of his opponents that he acted against Hussein despite a lack of evidence that he had contacts with Al-Qaeda or, indeed, proof he had workable stocks of chemical or biological weapons. No weapons of mass destruction were found after the war.
The charge Blair acted without sufficient proof was made forcefully by the recent revelation of a memo written by Blair's former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, at the time. Straw warned the prime minister there was "no credible evidence" linking Iraq to Al-Qaeda and that the "threat from Iraq has not worsened as a result of 11 September."
Straw's letter is part of a body of new questions about Blair's decision to go to war that has arisen since the inquiry panel began questioning his top aides in November.
Michael Binyon, a political correspondent with "The Times" of London, says much about the top aides' testimony put Blair on the defensive.
"The people with whom they have already talked have said things which prompted both anger and surprise and a feeling that more questions need to be asked. Particularly over the process by which [Britain's intervention in Iraq] was declared legal [by the British government] after a lot of wrangling, whether or not pressure was put on the man who made [that] decision for the government, whether in fact Mr. Blair did give an undertaking to George Bush long before he declared to Britain that the question was still open and they were still trying to achieve a diplomatic solution."
All of this made today's hearings riveting viewing in Britain, where public opinion long ago turned against him over his decision to join U.S. President George W. Bush in invading Iraq in 2003.
A British poll earlier this month showed that 52 percent of the respondents believe the former prime minister deliberately misled the country over the war. Worse still, 25 percent of those polled said he should be arraigned for war crimes.
But, if Blair is on the defensive, it is important to remember that today's hearings are not in any way a trial, with the former prime minister as defendant.
"The purpose of the Iraq Inquiry is to establish a reliable account of the U.K.'s involvement in Iraq between 2001 and 2009 and to identify lessons for future governments facing similar circumstances," said John Chilcot, the head of the inquiry panel, as today's proceedings began.
"That is our remit. The inquiry is not a trial. The committee before you is independent and nonpolitical."
The government-appointed panel has no powers to deem Blair either innocent or guilty of anything. It is not even certain whether the panel, in its final report, will try to establish if Blair went to war with, or without, sufficient grounds.
How Blair Is Remembered
It is too early to know whether Blair was successful today in defending his Iraq policy. That question will be left to the press as it comments on his answers to the panels, and to the British public.
But there is little doubt that Blair's appearance today -- for better or worse -- will influence how future historians remember both him and this period of British history.
"He knows that he must make it clear that he acted in good faith," Binyon says, "that he did what he did for moral and right reasons in terms of national interest, all those questions, and if he fails to answer any of those doubts than almost certainly the general disapproval of the Iraq war that has now clearly come out will fix on him and his reputation will be tarnished forever more."
The inquiry panel will continue to question other top officials about Iraq after Blair's appearance today. It is scheduled to question current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Blair's former chancellor of the exchequer, in February or March.
Britain was the second-largest contributor of troops to the coalition force that toppled Hussein, sending 46,000 army personnel to the region in the spring of 2003.
The British Army withdrew from Iraq on April 30, 2009, after suffering the loss of 179 military personnel in operations there.