At times close to tears, Tony Blair faced the world’s media yesterday (6 July) to defend his place in history after the damning findings of Britain’s inquiry into the Iraq war.
There was an apology – of sorts – from the former Labour premier, who in 1997, at the age of 43 became Britain’s youngest head of state in nearly two centuries.
“I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe,” said a hoarse-sounding Blair, his voice breaking.
He also insisted that memories of events around the invasion – which led to the death of more than 150,000 Iraqis and 179 British soldiers – would never leave him.
The Iraq invasion began on 20 March 2003, four days after a crucial pro-war meeting in the Azores on 16 March 2003, attended by George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar. As Portuguese prime minister, Barroso organised the Azores meeting.
Barroso was President of the European Commission soon after. Although in the meantime it became clear that there was no valid reason for invading Iraq, nothing prevented Barroso from being reelected in 2009. He stayed until the end of his second term in 2014.
Unlike Blair, Barroso and Aznar have never been held accountable for being George W. Bush’s accomplices for starting the Iraq invasion.
Most member states bowed to EU pressure and supported the US-led war in Iraq. But diplomatic sources insist that the Azores trio of Blair-Barroso-Aznar played a pivotal role.
The organisation Iraq Body Count estimates 160,000 and 180,000 civilian deaths in Iraq since then. The total violent deaths, including combatants, is estimated at 251,000.
Retired civil servant John Chilcot was appointed seven years ago as chair of an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the invasion of Iraq. He finally announced the findings of his inquiry yesterday (6 July).
The Chilcot report finds that eight months before the 2003 invasion, Blair told US President George W. Bush “I will be with you, whatever,” eventually sending 45,000 British troops into battle.
The inquiry, which was given unprecedented access to confidential government documents and took longer to complete than British military involvement in the conflict itself, said Blair had relied on flawed intelligence and determined the way the war was legally authorised was unsatisfactory.
In a lengthy and passionate defence lasting almost two hours, Blair explained his decision to back Bush and go to war alongside the United States in March 2003, at a time when the inquiry said Saddam posed no imminent threat.
“I did not mislead this country. There were no lies, there was no deceit, there was no deception,” the former prime minister told reporters, looking gaunt and strained but growing animated as he responded to questions.
“There will not be a day of my life where I don’t relive or rethink what happened,” he told the news conference at London’s Admiralty House, once home to wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.
The man known as “The Master” at Westminster now looks set to slip back into his lucrative career of advising foreign governments, despite threats from some MPs that they will try and impeach him via a law last used in 1806.
More than 100 anti-war protesters had gathered outside the venue where Chilcot spoke shouting: “Blair lied, thousands died.”
Perhaps seeking to avoid similar scenes, Blair’s aides only gave journalists 15 minutes’ notice of his news conference – though he did stay to answer their questions for “as long as you want”.
He could not resist a snipe at those who accuse him of lying over his motives for invading Iraq – a claim which has become commonplace in Britain since he resigned as premier in 2007.
“Neither history nor the fierce and raucous conduct of modern politics, with all its love of conspiracy theory and its addiction to believing the worst of everyone, should falsify my motive,” he said.
“I did it because I thought it right,” he said.
One of Britain’s most popular ever politicians when he won his first election by a landslide in the 1990s, Blair now has an approval rating of -67%, according to pollsters YouGov.
At 63, Blair is still relatively young and reportedly interested in senior political jobs.