Tony Blair poses the '2010 question' to the Iraq inquiry
Tony Blair has denied striking a "covert" deal with George Bush to invade Iraq at a private meeting in 2002 at the US president's ranch.
He told the Iraq inquiry there was no secret about what was said - that Saddam Hussein had to be dealt with and "the method of doing that is open".
The former prime minister was also quizzed about the claim Saddam could launch weapons at 45 minutes' notice.
He said "it would have been better" if headlines about it had been corrected.
Mr Blair has used the hearing to mount an impassioned defence of the decision to go to war, telling the panel: "This isn't about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception.
THE STORY SO FAR...
In April 2002, with 9/11 still dominating the agenda, Tony Blair warns of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction
Despite the biggest anti-war protest in British history, in March 2003 British forces join the US invasion of Iraq after efforts to get UN backing fail.
With no weapons of mass destruction found attention switches to the way intelligence was used to justify war
The Hutton inquiry finds the government did not "sex up" dossier on Saddam's weapons.
But the Butler inquiry finds "serious flaws" in pre-war intelligence
And with public feelings still running high, Gordon Brown announces Chilcot inquiry to "learn the lessons" of the Iraq conflict.
"It's a decision. And the decision I had to take was, given Saddam's history, given his use of chemical weapons, given the over one million people whose deaths he had caused, given 10 years of breaking UN resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons programmes or is that a risk that it would be irresponsible to take?"
Sometimes it is important not to ask the "March 2003 question" but the "2010 question", said Mr Blair, arguing that if Saddam had been left in power the UK and its allies would have "lost our nerve" to act.
Quoting frequently from his own speeches and statements, Mr Blair faced a sometimes tense session, with family members of service personnel killed in Iraq sat behind him in the public gallery reacting with dismay to some of his answers.
Earlier witnesses to the inquiry have suggested he told Mr Bush at their April 2002 meeting at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, that the UK would join the Americans in a war with Iraq.
But Mr Blair said: "What I was saying - I was not saying this privately incidentally, I was saying it in public - was 'we are going to be with you in confronting and dealing with this threat'.
"The one thing I was not doing was dissembling in that position. How we proceed in this is a matter that was open. The position was not a covert position, it was an open position."
Pressed on what he thought Mr Bush took from the meeting, he went further, saying: "I think what he took from that was exactly what he should have taken, which was if it came to military action because there was no way of dealing with this diplomatically, we would be with him."
But he also confirmed that a year later, on the eve of war, the Americans had offered Britain a "way out" of military action, which he had turned down.
"I think President Bush at one point said, before the [Commons] debate, 'Look if it's too difficult for Britain, we understand'.
"I took the view very strongly then - and do now - that it was right for us to be with America, since we believed in this too."
On the issue of whether or not military action would be legal, Mr Blair said Mr Bush decided the UN Security Council's support "wasn't necessary". He said it was "correct" to say that he shared that view, although it would have been "preferable politically".
So Tony Blair remains a "true believer" in the Iraq war.
There was not a hint of contrition or regret, in spite of the fact that bereaved families who lost loved ones in Iraq were among those sitting behind him in the public gallery, listening to every word of his evidence.
One of the sisters of Margaret Hassan, the British aid worker who was kidnapped and killed in Iraq, said the only consolation to be drawn from this morning's session was that Mr Blair had been forced to appear before the Iraq Inquiry.
Mr Blair has remained firm in his belief that what he did in Iraq was right. He was equally robust in his presentation, frequently trying to direct the Inquiry to notes and references which he had brought to bolster his case.
The members of Sir John Chilcot's committee did their best to ensure that Mr Blair answered their questions, and did not deviate to the extent that he took control of the proceedings.
But he told the inquiry he would not have backed military action if Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had said it "could not be justified legally".
Asked why Lord Goldsmith, after initially saying he thought it would be illegal, in line with all government lawyers at the time, said it would be legal a week before the invasion began, Mr Blair said the attorney general "had to come to a conclusion".
He said he had not had any discussions with Lord Goldsmith in the week before he gave his formal statement on the legality of war but he believed the attorney general had come to his view because weapons inspectors had "indicated that Saddam Hussein had not taken a final opportunity to comply" with UN demands.
Asked about the controversial claim in a September 2002 dossier that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction (WMD) at 45 minutes notice, Mr Blair said it "assumed a vastly greater significance" afterwards than it did at the time.
He said it "would have been better if (newspaper) headlines about the '45-minute claim' had been corrected" in light of the significance it later took on.
Looking back, he would have made it clearer the claim referred to battlefield munitions, not missiles, and would have preferred to publish the intelligence assessments by themselves as they were "absolutely strong enough".
But Mr Blair insisted that, on the basis of the intelligence available at the time, he stood by his claim at the time that it was "beyond doubt" Iraq was continuing to develop its weapons capability.
However he acknowledged "things obviously look quite different" now given the failure to discover any weapons after the invasion.
Even up to the last minute Mr Blair said he was "desperately" trying to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis but France and Russia "changed their position" and were not going to allow a second UN resolution.
Saddam Hussein had "no intention" of allowing his scientists to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors, he said, with the regime concealing key material.
Giving the inspectors more time would have made little difference, he added. He also said Iraq had the "intent" and technical knowhow to rebuild its weapons programme and would have done so if the international community had not acted.
Mr Blair also denied he would have supported the invasion of Iraq even if he had thought Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, as he appeared to suggest last year in a BBC interview with Fern Brittan.
What he had been trying to say, he explained to the inquiry, was that "you would not describe the nature of the threat in the same way if you knew then what you knew now, that the intelligence on WMD had been shown to be wrong".
He said his position had not changed, despite what reports of the interview had suggested.
Mr Blair was at pains to point out that he believed weapons of mass destruction and regime change could not be treated as separate issues but were "conjoined".
He said "brutal and oppressive" regimes with WMD were a "bigger threat" than a benign states with WMD.
He also stressed the British and American attitude towards the threat posed by Saddam Hussein "changed dramatically" after the terror attacks on 11 September 2001, saying: "I never regarded 11 September as an attack on America, I regarded it as an attack on us."
Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot began the six hour question session by stressing that Mr Blair was not "on trial" but said he could be recalled to give further evidence if necessary.
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In: Iraq, News
Tags: bush, blair, iraq, saddam, enquiry, WMDs, yellow cake, intelligence, BBC
Location: London, London, City of, United Kingdom (UK/GB) (load item map)
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