Tony Blair’s admission that Britain would have backed the Iraq war even if he knew it did not have weapons of mass destruction sparked outrage Sunday and calls for his prosecution for war crimes.
The former British prime minister, who backed the US-led invasion in 2003, told the BBC he would “still have thought it right to remove” Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein because of the threat he posed to the region.
Lawyers representing the deposed Iraqi leadership said they would seek to prosecute Blair following his remarks, while one newspaper commentator said it was a “game-changing admission” for the ongoing official inquiry into the war.
Former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix added: “The war was sold on the WMD, and now you feel, or hear that it was only a question of deployment of arguments, as he said, it sounds a bit like a fig leaf that was held up.”
Blair is due to give evidence to the inquiry into the war, led by former civil servant John Chilcot, early next year, and the commentator in the Sunday Telegraph said the investigation’s focus must now change.
“Mr Blair’s game-changing admission gives them a licence to be tougher and more prosecutorial,” he wrote, a call echoed by campaigners at Stop the War Coalition, who urged Chilcot’s inquiry to recommend legal action against Blair.
Professor Philippe Sands, a leading international lawyer, said he believed Blair’s comments had left him vulnerable to legal proceedings.
“The fact that the policy was fixed by Tony Blair irrespective of the facts on the ground, and irrespective of the legality, will now expose him more rather than less to legal difficulties,” Sands told The Sunday Herald.
A lawyer for Saddam Hussein’s jailed former deputy prime minister, Tareq Aziz, wrote to Britain’s top legal adviser Saturday asking permission to prosecute Blair for war crimes.
In a statement Sunday, Giovanni di Stefano said the former prime minister’s comments were an admission that “his aim was regime change. That is without question unlawful and subject to criminal proceedings”.
In the absence of explicit UN approval, Blair justified the war on the basis of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and long-range missiles and its non-compliance with UN weapons inspections, in defiance of numerous UN resolutions.
The alleged chemical and biological weapons were never found, but Blair said he would have gone to war even if he had known they were not there.
“I would still have thought it right to remove him (Saddam Hussein). Obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments, about the nature of the threat,” he said.
He added: “It was the notion of him as a threat to the region, of which the development of WMD was obviously one, and because you’d had 12 years of United Nations to and fro on this subject, he used chemical weapons on his own people — so this was obviously the thing that was uppermost in my mind.”
Nick Clegg, leader of the center-left Liberal Democrats, accused Blair of “breathtaking cynicism”, while David Cameron, the leader of the main opposition Conservatives, said he was “quite surprised” at the remarks.
While Saddam Hussein had violated many UN resolutions and was “a menace” to the region, Cameron — whose party backed the invasion — noted that Blair had put a “huge amount of weight on the WMD argument” to justify war.
A poll published three days before the invasion found widespread British support for military action as long as it was backed by the United Nations and there was proof Iraq had WMDs. Without these conditions, support plummeted to 26 percent.
Cameron also called for Blair to give his evidence to the Chilcot inquiry in public, amid reports that closed door hearings were planned.
An inquiry spokesman denied this, saying Blair would appear “very much in public”.