LONDON (AFP) – At times close to tears, former prime minister Tony Blair faced the world’s media Wednesday to defend his place in history after the damning findings of Britain’s inquiry into the Iraq war.
There was an apology — of sorts — from the former Labour leader, who in 1997 at the age of 43 became Britain’s youngest premier in nearly two centuries.
“I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe,” said a hoarse-sounding Blair, his voice breaking.
He also insisted that memories of events around the invasion — which led to the death of more than 150,000 Iraqis and 179 British soldiers — would never leave him.
“There will not be a day of my life where I don’t relive or rethink what happened,” he told the news conference at London’s Admiralty House, once home to wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.
But after nearly two hours of talking and a barrage of questions from journalists, Blair was still adamant that he had taken the right decisions on Iraq despite the serious flaws in planning and execution which dogged the US-led invasion in 2003.
The man known as “The Master” at Westminster now looks set to slip back into his lucrative career of advising foreign governments, despite threats from some MPs that they will try and impeach him via a law last used in 1806.
A defiant Blair said he could not accept a whole string of the Chilcot report’s central findings, including that it was unnecessary to invade Iraq in March 2003.
“I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer” without toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, he said.
“They want me to say what I can’t in all frankness say — that we should have taken a different decision. I’m sorry if people find that difficult to reconcile,” Blair added.
His comments came a few hours after retired civil servant John Chilcot finally announced the findings of his inquiry into Britain’s role in the war after seven years.
More than 100 anti-war protesters had gathered outside the venue where Chilcot spoke, shouting “Blair lied, thousands died.”
Perhaps seeking to avoid similar scenes, Blair’s aides only gave journalists 15 minutes’ notice of his news conference — though he did stay to answer their questions for “as long as you want.”
He could not resist a snipe at those who accuse him of lying over his motives for invading Iraq — a claim which has become commonplace in Britain since he resigned as premier in 2007.
“Neither history nor the fierce and raucous conduct of modern politics, with all its love of conspiracy theory and its addiction to believing the worst of everyone, should falsify my motive,” he said.
“I did it because I thought it right,” he said.
One of Britain’s most popular ever politicians when he won his first election by a landslide in the 1990s, Blair now has an approval rating of -67 percent, according to pollsters YouGov.
At 63, Blair is still relatively young and reportedly interested in senior political jobs.
An article he wrote for the Daily Telegraph last week was seen by some commentators as an informal pitch for a job helping to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union following last month’s referendum.
But for all the deft political touch exhibited at Wednesday’s press conference, some of the reaction demonstrated how toxic his Iraq legacy remains.
Blair’s name was trending on Twitter after his press conference and many comments referred to him having “blood on his hands.”
“It will take many hours to read Sir John’s magnum opus, and there will be much to learn from his findings,” wrote political commentator Matthew d’Ancona in a column for Wednesday’s Evening Standard newspaper.
“But those who already hate Blair will not have their opinions shifted by an inch.”