U.K.'s Brown Defends Iraq War

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown defended his country's decision to invade Iraq, but told an inquiry into the conflict that the U.S. dismissed warning of chaos once Saddam Hussein was ousted. At the time, Brown was part of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair's inner circle. He has faced criticism for not dissuading Blair from entering the war and for underestimating its cost.

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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown appeared today before a panel investigating the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He faced tough questions about his role in the run-up to the war. Brown was speaking just weeks after his predecessor, Tony Blair, defended his decision to back the 2003 invasion.

Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER: Police helicopters hovered overhead and dozens of officers in yellow reflective vests lined the street as Gordon Brown made the half-block journey to the inquiry.

Brown was appearing not just as a sitting prime minister but as a former cabinet minister who, as Tony Blair's then-chancellor, might shed light on just how and when the decision to invade Iraq was made.

Sir JOHN CHILCOT (Chairman, Iraq War Inquiry): I should like to ask right at the outset whether you believe the decision to take military action in March 2003 was indeed right.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (United Kingdom): It was the right decision and it was for the right reasons.

BARKER: In contrast to Tony Blair's appearance before the panel in January, Brown expressed sadness for the Iraqi civilians killed in the fighting and in the chaos that followed. He said he regrets not pushing the Americans harder on planning for a post-war Iraq. There were lessons to be learned, he said.

But Brown also insisted a series of intelligence briefings had left him with the clear impression that Saddam Hussein posed a grave threat.

Prime Minister BROWN: Now, my feeling is and still is that we cannot have an international community that works if we have either terrorists who are breaking these rules, or in this case, aggressor states that refuse to obey the laws of the international community.

BARKER: The panel is probing allegations that the Bush administration ignored the international community and unilaterally decided to invade Iraq as early as 2002 with then Prime Minister Blair's knowledge and consent.

It's also trying to ascertain if the British people were lied to about the reasons for going to war. But Brown twice declined to say just what, if anything, Blair had told him about his meetings with President Bush.

(Soundbite of protesters chanting)

BARKER: Outside the hall, several dozen protesters were complaining the $13 billion Britain spent in Iraq and Afghanistan should have stayed at home.

But inside, Brown was countering accusations that far from spending too much, Britain has spent too little equipping and protecting its forces, and that, first as finance minister then as prime minister, he was to blame.

Prime Minister BROWN: I said that every single request that was made for equipment had to be met. And every request was met.

BARKER: Susan Smith's son, Phil, was killed by an IED in 2005 because the vehicle he was riding in had only minimal armor.

Ms. SUSAN SMITH: They signed up for what they did. It doesn't make it right that they're not looked after in work. And it is ultimately the government's responsibility as their employer to make them safe and they didn't do that.

BARKER: One hundred and seventy-nine British troops were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, the period covered by the inquiry.

The panel has no enforcement power and witnesses are not testifying under oath. But Chairman Sir John Chilcot says he won't shirk from apportioning blame where he sees fit.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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