Tony Blair faces grilling on Iraq war
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair faced tough questioning on Friday on his controversial decision to back the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, a pledge that led to widespread protests in Britain and weakened his standing as leader.
Blair's testimony is expected to provide the highlight of the Iraq Inquiry, a wide-ranging investigation commissioned by the government to scrutinize the behind-the-scenes machinations that brought Britain into a costly and unpopular war.
An audience gathered in a central London convention center for the session included family members of soldiers and civilians killed or missing in Iraq.
The former prime minister arrived shortly before 0700GMT (0200EST) Friday, dodging about 150 demonstrators by entering the conference center through a cordoned-off rear entrance. Protesters shouted slogans including "Jail Tony" and "Blair lied, thousands died."
Blair was expected to be questioned about charges that he and his inner circle were so determined to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that they exaggerated the content of intelligence reports on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction.
He will also be pressed on when exactly he offered US President George W Bush support for an invasion, some witnesses have claimed the Briton pledged his backing as early as April 2002, more than a year before Parliament approved military intervention. Inquiry members will also focus on Blair's role in influencing Britain's attorney general to issue a ruling that the invasion would not be a violation of international law.
Outside the inquiry hall, protesters - some with fake blood smeared over their faces - called for Blair to account for his actions.
"Blair should not be here giving his excuses for the illegal war, he should be taken to The Hague to face criminal charges because he has committed crimes against the Iraqi people," said Saba Jaiwad, an Iraqi who opposed the war.
Fashion designer Katherine Hamnett, who joined the protest, said the Iraq war had exposed failings in Britain's political system "He does not have the integrity to come and face the people," Lindsey German, convener of Britain's Stop The War Coalition. "Sliding in by a back door entrance is typical of his lies, deceit and evasion."
Public unhappiness with the war dented Blair's hold on power. Though he won a 2005 national election, his victory came with a reduced majority. He stepped down in 2007.
"The three key issues are whether Blair's agreement to military action was intended to achieve regime change, whether the intelligence on Iraqi weapons was as conclusive as he claimed, and the legality of the war," said journalist Chris Ames, whose Iraq Inquiry Digest Web site has chronicled the hearings that began in November.
He said it became clear this week when former Attorney General Peter Goldsmith testified that the top legal adviser only changed his position and decided the war was legal after meeting with lawyers in ex-President George W Bush administration in Washington. Blair's government has been criticized for publishing a dossier asserting that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat because of his chemical and biological weapons capability, including missiles that could be launched within 45 minutes.
Those claims proved false. The five-person Iraq Inquiry panel is expected to issue its report late in 2010, but is not charged with assigning blame or determining if there was criminal conduct.
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