Former British prime minister Tony Blair showed up today for what has been called his Judgment Day hearing for leading Britain into the Iraq war and said that even though no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, going to war against Saddam Hussein was a decision he "frankly would take again."
Blair arrived with heavy security two hours ahead of schedule to avoid protestors gathered near Parliament Square. A small crowd shouted, "Tony Blair, War Criminal!" and carried placards made to look like they were splattered with blood and read: "B-LIAR!"
As he sat in front of the five-member panel, made up of four knights and a baroness, the former prime minister was visible nervous, his hands shaking and his face taught. His introductory remarks included none of the confident rhetoric he is known for delivering.
But he soon warmed to the debate, conceding the floor to the chair of the committee when asked. While he never grew defensive, neither did he waver in conveying his conviction that his actions came from a morally justifiable place and that he would make many of the same decisions today.
Early on in the questioning Blair made it clear that 9/11 had a dramatic and ultimately decisive effect on the length he was willing to go to support U.S. efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
"Up to Sept. 11 we thought he was a risk, but we thought it was worth trying to contain it," he said. "The crucial thing after Sept. 11 is that the calculus of risk changed."
Blair maintains that he was right to believe Saddam had weapons of mass destruction because he had used them in the past. That alone was a major and he says, justified component in taking Britain to war.
Blair has been harshly criticized for misleading the public on the WMD issue. On that note, he was clear and unapologetic.
"It is really important to understand the decision I took and frankly would take again. If there was any possibility that he could develop WMD we should stop him. That was my view then, that is my view now."
The Iraq Inquiry started last November. So far it has been a polite and very British affair. Blair's testimony is the most anticipated to date. Seats were allocated by ballot and a certain amount of tickets were reserved for family members of the 179 British soldiers killed in Iraq.
Much of his testimony centered on a private meeting that took place between Blair and former U.S. president George Bush in April 2002 on the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Blair has been accused of committing troops to the effort even then, almost a year before the U.S. would launch its first attack.
Blair maintains that he did not set any terms for military or financial commitment during the meeting in Crawford. But his testimony suggests he made it clear that no matter the differences in approach, whatever route the U.S. ultimately chose to pursue, the UK would be supportive.
All along Blair has said that the UK supported going "the U.N. route," pursuing through diplomacy and the build up of an international coalition. Blair cast a slightly different light on that today. He said that as early as the meeting in Crawford he felt that,"'If we tried the U.N. route and it failed then my view was it (Saddam) had to be dealt with."