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Britain Evaluates Blair's Defense Of Iraq War

The British press is responding today to former Prime Minister Tony Blair's six-hour defense on January 29 of his Iraq war policy before a government inquiry panel.

The former prime minister had given testimony to previous inquiries into aspects of the war, but January 29 marked his first public grilling.

The panel’s head, John Chilcot, said as proceedings began that “this is not a trial" - but, "The Guardian’s" Simon Jenkins writes, “you could have fooled us.”

Today’ Britain’s press mostly describes Blair’s performance as polished, a fluent, robust defense of his decision to send British troops to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The former prime minister, they say, appeared firm in his belief that he made the right decision.

Many focus on Blair’s claim to have no regrets about a decision many in the country see as a disaster and Blair’s responsibility.

That claim drew heckling from the public gallery, where some relatives of British troops killed in Iraq had gathered to watch the six hours of questioning.

Theresa Evans, whose 24-year-old son was killed in Iraq, expressed anger at the way she said Blair reacted to the questioning.

"At one stage he did laugh. He actually laughed and he smiled. And that really, really hurt as being a mum -- and there are so many mums and dads and brothers and sisters here," Evans said.

Blair did provide one apologetic statement. He said he was sorry that the war -- which prompted huge protests in Britain at the time -- had proven so divisive.

But on the main questions, Britain’s press say Blair gave few surprising answers.

'No Covert Deal'

He said there had been no covert deal with U.S. President George W. Bush months before the invasion.

He had not deliberately misled the British people on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, saying that at the time he had believed it to be “beyond doubt” that Iraq was continuing to develop WMD capacity.

And Blair said that the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States had changed the "calculus of risk.”

"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."

“The Independent” says that, though Blair did seem to be on the defensive, the panel members weren’t always tough enough in their questioning.

One member, the paper says, “seemed hesitant about skewering the former prime minister, even when the opportunity presented itself.”

And the media all describe Blair as having something of a mastery over his questioners.

His tone is described as lawyerly, lecturing -- as if he was delivering a “seminar on neoconservatism,” "The Guardian" says -- or preacher-like. The BBC says Blair was almost “evangelical.”

But he came over at his most persuasive, “The Daily Telegraph” says, when talking about what he said was the 2010 question: if Saddam had not been toppled and had developed WMD, what sort of threat would now be facing the West?

“Whatever one thinks of Mr. Blair,” "The Daily Telegraph" says, “that remains a good question.”