Fury as 'gung-ho- Blair 'sneaks' into Iraq hearing

ANTI-war protesters launched an angry attack on Tony Blair today after he "sneaked" into the Iraq inquiry and claimed there were growing calls for the former prime minister to face a war crimes tribunal.

Mr Blair arrived at the QEII Conference Centre in Westminster more than two hours before he was due to be questioned again and well before a protest by groups including CND and the Stop The War Coalition.

Scores of activists turned up, holding banners calling the ex-premier a liar and chanting "Tony Blair - to The Hague", where war crimes tribunals are held.

At the hearing Mr Blair said that he had always made clear to US president George Bush that he would be "up for" regime change in Iraq if it was the only way of dealing with Saddam Hussein.

Making his second appearance before the Iraq Inquiry, the former prime minister acknowledged that he had discussed ousting Saddam with Mr Bush as early December 2001 - even though it was not then British policy.

The inquiry released a newly declassified document from March 2002 - a year before the invasion by Britain and the US - in which Mr Blair said the UK should be "gung ho" about the prospect of getting rid of the Iraqi dictator.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Mr Blair said that, while he made clear that he would always stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the Americans, he had also succeeded in persuading the US leader to go down the "UN route" first.

The former premier said regime change in Baghdad had always been "on the agenda" for the Americans after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He acknowledged that it had come up when he spoke to Mr Bush by telephone on December 3 that year.

"Regime change was their policy so regime change was part of the discussion," he said. "If it became the only way of dealing with this issue, we were going to be up for that."

He added: "The Americans, from September 11 onwards, this was on their agenda."

The inquiry also released a note from Mr Blair to his chief of staff Jonathan Powell, shortly before his visit to Mr Bush at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, in which he argued that Labour should be "gung ho" about dealing with Saddam.

He said that, from "a centre-left perspective", the case for action against the Iraqi dictator should be "obvious".

"Saddam's regime is a brutal, oppressive military dictatorship. He kills his opponents, has wrecked his country's economy and is a source of instability and danger in the region," he wrote.

"I can understand a right-wing Tory opposed to 'nation-building' being opposed to it on grounds it hasn't any direct bearing on our national interest. But in fact a political philosophy that does care about other nations - e.g. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone - and is prepared to change regimes on the merits, should be gung-ho on Saddam."

In the early months of 2002, events were "evolving at quite a fast track", Mr Blair said, adding that by then "this thing was going down a track of regime change".

He said "it was clear from the outset" that Mr Bush "was going to change that regime if it didn't allow the inspectors back in".

By the autumn of 2002, after Iraq failed to co-operate properly with the United Nations Security Resolution which allowed for the return of UN weapons inspectors, Mr Blair said he was determined to stick with the Americans.

"Once it became clear that Saddam had not changed but was carrying on in the same way, I think it would have been profoundly wrong of us to have gone back to the Americans and said 'I know we said that we would be with you in handling this, but now we are not'."

Mr Blair disregarded his top legal adviser's warning that attacking Iraq would be illegal without further United Nations backing because the guidance was "provisional", the inquiry heard.

The former prime minister "held to the position" that another UN Security Council resolution explicitly supporting military action was unnecessary despite being told the opposite by attorney general Lord Goldsmith.

Mr Blair said he believed Lord Goldsmith would come around to his interpretation of the legal position once he knew the full history of the negotiations behind UN Security Council Resolution 1441.

Mr Blair said he believed the passing of Resolution 1441 - which declared Iraq in "material breach" of its obligations to disarm and paved the way for the return of weapons inspectors - in November 2002 was a success.

But Lord Goldsmith has told the inquiry he disagreed at the time, believing the resolution did not achieve the UK's objective of authorising military action on its own.

Mr Blair told the inquiry: "In retrospect it would have been sensible to have him (Lord Goldsmith) absolutely in touch with the negotiation machinery all the way through.

"Because I think then we wouldn't probably have got into the situation where he thought, provisionally at least, that we needed another resolution.

"Because I think, had he known of the negotiating history 'real time', as it were, going through it, we could have avoided some of the problems later."

Lord Goldsmith told the ex-prime minister in a six-page draft legal opinion on January 14 2003 that Resolution 1441 was not enough on its own to justify the use of force against Iraq.

Mr Blair said in a statement to the inquiry: "I had not yet got to the stage of a formal request for advice and neither had he got to the point of formally giving it.

"So I was continuing to hold to the position that another resolution was not necessary."

Mr Blair was also asked about the contents of a secret letter he wrote to Mr Bush in July 2002.

The inquiry heard that the former premier's foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, tried to persuade him to change the first sentence of the note because it was "too sweeping" and closed off Britain's options.

Sir David added: "It went further than we should have gone."

Mr Blair told the inquiry: "What I was saying to President Bush was very clear and simple - 'You can count on us. We are going to be with you in tackling this but here are the difficulties.' As you see, the rest of the note is actually about all the issues and difficulties."

Mr Blair denied a claim in a book by journalist Andrew Rawnsley that he told Mr Bush at this time: "You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I'm with you."

Mr Blair refused a request by the inquiry to release the full contents of his July 2002 letter to Mr Bush, which has already been blocked by Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell.

He said: "I'm not going to hide behind the Cabinet Secretary, it's not my way.

"I think it's extremely important that the British prime minister and the American president are able to communicate in confidence and if something is given in confidence it should be treated like that."