Tony Blair Testifies Before Iraq War Inquiry Panel

Many people in Britain believe former Prime Minister Tony Blair led them into an unjust war in Iraq. That view has been reinforced by this week's evidence at the public inquiry into the justification and conduct of the war. Blair is expected to face six hours of questioning by the panel.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Ari Shapiro.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

Crowd: (Chanting) Tony Blair (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: Thats the sound of protestors today calling for Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes. Its not clear if that will ever happen, but the former British prime minister is facing six hours of questioning today. Its an inquiry in London examining the Iraq war. Blair and other key players are facing scrutiny about the decision to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Mr. TONY BLAIR (Former British prime minister): I never regarded September the 11th as an attack on America. I regarded it as an attack on us. And I said we would stand shoulder to shoulder with them. We did in Afghanistan, and I was determined to do that again.

INSKEEP: Thats Tony Blair testifying today. He is talking for hours. And NPRs Rob Gifford is listening from London.

Hi, Rob.

ROB GIFFORD: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Whose inquiry is this?

GIFFORD: Well, its been ordered by the government, the government of Gordon Brown, Tony Blairs successor, because I think thereve been so many rumblings that there never was a full inquiry into the Iraq war. Thereve been a few smaller ones into intelligence failures.

But I think theyve been trying to put this whole thing to rest, to get all the major players out in a public inquiry to be questioned by a former civil servant. It should be said that civil servant was appointed by the government. Some fears that it won't be full independent.

But he has really tried to say I will be independent. Hes got other experts with him and theyre grilling all the lead players in the lead up to the Iraq war in 2003.

INSKEEP: Does he have legal power to investigate this or to punish anybody?

GIFFORD: Not at all. This is not a trial. He emphasized that this morning. Sir John Chilcot, this retired civil servant. It is purely, as some have said, its to sort of learn the lessons, if you like, from what happened in the run up to the Iraq war, to lay it all out, to hear about the mistakes.

Everyone admits, even Tony Blair admits, so that future generations can learn about it. And thats why there is so much attention on Tony Blair today, because obviously he was the key player in the whole thing that played out.

INSKEEP: Well, Im interested, Rob Gifford, because this is a former prime minister who spoke endlessly about the decision to go to war. He had to go through a reelection campaign and decided he was going to take endless numbers of skeptical questions about this and get to the point where people were almost tired of hearing from him. Im curious if now that hes talking about it all over again if you're hearing anything new.

GIFFORD: Well, its very interesting what he has been focusing on. As you just heard hes talking a lot about 9/11 this morning actually. How 9/11 changed everything. Thats been the focus of this mornings questioning. And how after 9/11 - before 9/11 they knew Saddam was a menace. They knew he was a monster, a dictator. But he was in a box, if you like.

The revelation of al-Qaida, the existence of al-Qaida prepared to do something like 9/11 made it so much more dangerous, the risk was so much greater of WMD falling into the hands of a group like al-Qaida. And Tony Blair has been saying that basically that is what changed everything.

Interestingly, one other thing. Hes mentioned Kosovo a lot. Very, very interesting. In the last 90s, of course, he was instrumental in the preemptive strikes against Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. And I think many people here see that as though he saw the success of Kosovo and he wanted to translate that somehow with the impetus of 9/11 into a preemptive successful strike against Saddam.

INSKEEP: So hes arguing that hes like people to remember the context at the time of that decision. And just of seconds, though, Rob. What about this time now? Is this still a big issue for the British people?

GIFFORD: It is. Theres lots of demonstrators, as you heard, outside. The general public, they want to hear what Tony Blair says. I think generally, though, a lot of people have moved on. Many of them opposed it, but I think they want to hear this and draw a line under it. And I think thats what for many people this Iraq inquiry will allow them to do.

INSKEEP: Ok. Thanks very much. Thats NPRs Rob Gifford in London.

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