In an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, the former British prime minister declined to apologise for the war itself and defended armed intervention in 2003, pointing to the current civil war in Syria to highlight the dangers of inaction.
“I also apologise for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime.”
But Blair made clear that he still felt he made the right decision in backing the US invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. He said: “I find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam.”
Blair also made light of the claims that he should stand trial on war crimes charges and defended his policy of what he used to describe as liberal interventionism. He contrasted what he described as “my ‘crime’” – the removal of Saddam – and the civil war in Syria.
“We have stood back and we, in the west, bear responsibility for this – Europe most of all. We’ve done nothing. That’s a judgment of history I’m prepared to have.”
Blair indicated that he saw merit in the argument that the Iraq war was to blame for the rise of Islamic State (Isis). “I think there are elements of truth in that,” he said when asked whether the Iraq invasion had been the “principal cause” of the rise of Isis.
He added: “Of course you can’t say those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.”
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, responded by saying that the “Blair spin operation” had swung into action as Chilcot prepares to set out a timetable for the publication of his report.
Sturgeon tweeted: “The Blair spin operation begins but the country still awaits the truth. The delay to Chilcot report is a scandal.
In his long-awaited report, Chilcot is expected to criticise the use of intelligence that suggested Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war. The former Northern Ireland Office permanent secretary is also expected to say that the UK and the US failed to make adequate preparations for the aftermath of the invasion.
Blair’s office sought to downplay the significance of the CNN interview, part of a programme called Long Road to Hell: America in Iraq, to be broadcast on the network on Monday.
A spokeswoman said: “Tony Blair has always apologised for the intelligence being wrong and for mistakes in planning. He has always also said, and says again here, that he does not however think it was wrong to remove Saddam.”
“What then happened was a combination of two things: there was a sectarian policy pursued by the government of Iraq, which were mistaken policies. But also when the Arab spring began, Isis moved from Iraq into Syria, built themselves from Syria and then came back into Iraq. All of this he has said before.”
Chilcot is preparing to outline a timetable for the publication of his report in the next 10 days. Blair will be aware of what criticisms Chilcot is planning to make of him because the inquiry chair has written to all key participants as part of what is known as the Maxwellisation process. It allows them to respond to criticisms before publication.
Chilcot was a member of the Butler inquiry, which in 2004 raised concerns about the intelligence before the Iraq invasion. The inquiry also questioned the way in which senior intelligence officials and Downing Street stripped out caveats from intelligence assessments.
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EXCERPTS FROM ON-LINE COMMENTS:
• Tony Blair apologises, among other things, for the inaccuracy of the intelligence information about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But the fact is that by the time the war started, the highly regarded UN weapons inspector Hans Blix hadn’t found any such weapons and didn’t believe he was going to.
• Sadly, the rise of Isis was a relatively milder consequence of the Iraq war. The wider consequence was the creation of a religious war across the whole of the Middle East. Before Iraq, al-Qaida was not attacking Shia or Kurd. Its targets were the west. Sunni and Shia have always been on opposing sides but there were no conflicts in the Middle East based on this religious division.
As Martin Chulov (The crucial point: a partial acknowledgment that without the war there would have been no Isis,26 October) quite rightly states, the Iraq war stoked these divisions, destroying the country, favouring Shia, oppressing Sunni and generating the chaos of a civil religious war. This division has now broadened into Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon, and the Middle East is on fire as Sunni and Shia fight a religious war that is every day becoming a single international conflict with the US on one side and Russia on the other.
• Martin Chulov’s reference to Abu Ghraib resonates in Syria. I was in Damascus when events at Abu Ghraib surfaced and while meeting with Bouthaina Shaaban, media adviser to president Bashar al-Assad, I voiced my concern about the many young Syrian men who seemed keen to go to Iraq to fight. More young lives lost, I felt. “They have seen what happened in Abu Ghraib,” she said, “and they have to go.”
• It seems Tony Blair is still at it – twisting and turning as usual. He says he apologises for “the intelligence being wrong” but what he really should say is: “I apologise for the intelligence being correct but we ignored that and told the general public and parliament a totally different story to suit our intentions.” Why is there still a need to listen to him?