LONDON — Former prime minister Tony Blair said Friday there had been no "covert" deal with then US president George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003, and robustly defended his decision to take Britain to war.
Giving eagerly awaited evidence to a public inquiry into the conflict, he insisted he had backed war because Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had flouted UN resolutions, not because he wanted "regime change". Related article: Saddam was a 'monster' says Blair
Almost seven years on, six months after British troops withdrew from Iraq, Blair's decision to back the war remains a highly controversial subject, and hundreds of anti-war protesters demonstrated outside the inquiry venue.
Inside, sitting before the panel in a navy blue suit and red tie, he was asked whether he had pledged Britain's support for war during a private April 2002 meeting with Bush at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Blair denied this, saying he had told Bush "we are going to be with you in confronting and dealing with this threat" posed by Saddam's suspected programme of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
"How we did that was an open question, and even at that stage I was raising the issue of going to the UN," he said.
However he confirmed they had discussed the military option. "There was a general discussion of the possibility of going down the military route, but obviously we were arguing very much for that to be if the UN route failed."
But there was no "dissembling" about their talks, Blair said. "The position was not a covert position, it was an open position."
Britain needed to be involved not just because of its strong ties with the United States but because WMD proliferation potentially threatened Britain.
If military action was the right way, Britain wanted to be "in there right alongside" Washington, he told the inquiry.
Blair admitted that a key British government dossier of intelligence about Iraqi WMD in September 2002, which helped make the case for war, could have been clearer.
He said the central claim Saddam could launch WMD within 45 minutes should have been "corrected".
But he insisted Britain and many others believed Iraq had the weapons, and that after the September 11, 2001 attacks, he could not risk the possibility Saddam would pass them on to terror groups.
"Up to September 11 we thought he was a risk, but we thought it was worth trying to contain it. The crucial thing after September 11 is that the calculus of risk changed," Blair said.
Saddam was a "monster" who had used chemical weapons on his own people and "we couldn't run the risk of such a regime being allowed to develop WMD".
Blair was asked about a recent TV interview in which he appeared to say he would have invaded Iraq even if he had known WMD would not be found, leading some commentators to suggest he was intent on removing Saddam regardless.
"I didn't use the words 'regime change' in that interview and I didn't mean in any sense to change the basis (for war)," he said, adding: "It was in no sense a change of position.
"The position was that it was the breach of UN resolutions on WMD... It was then and it remains."
Among the protesters outside, who were waving placards saying "Bliar" and chanting "Tony Blair War Criminal," were relatives of some of the 179 British troops who have died in the conflict. Related article: Blair slips past protesters
Other relatives joined the public audience watching him inside.
Many expressed frustration at his evidence, including Theresea Evans, whose son Llywelyn died in Iraq on the first day of the conflict. Related article: Tears, anger from soldiers' families as Blair talks.
"I would like him to look into my eyes and say 'I'm sorry'. But he hasn't got the guts," Evans told AFP.
Reg Keys, whose son Thomas died in Iraq in 2003, said before the hearing opened that he had long been waiting for Blair to make his case.
"It's a day we've waited a long time for and I want to hear what he's got to say," Keys told AFP.
"He needs to explain why he misled parliament, why information was changed in the (intelligence) dossier... and why we found our loved ones in a conflict that was very questionable."
This video is from CBS' The Early Show, broadcast Jan. 29, 2009.