Demonstrators gather outside the venue of the so-called Chilcot inquiry… (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty…)
Reporting from London — Defending the most controversial decision of his career -- if not his life -- former British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared Friday that he had no regrets over going to war in Iraq, calling it the right decision in a post-Sept. 11 world and one he "would take again."
For more than six hours, Blair gave a stout defense of the war before an investigative panel whose proceedings were televised nationwide in a riveting moment of political theater.
Britons who ditched soap operas and game shows to watch their former leader submit to a prolonged public grilling saw Blair insist that he tried to resolve the standoff with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein diplomatically, that he made the best judgment he could and that the Iraqi people are better off for it.
"I had to take this decision as prime minister. And it was a huge responsibility then, and there's not a single day that passes by that I don't reflect and think about that responsibility," Blair told the commission.
But, he said, "if I'm asked whether I believe we are safer, more secure, that Iraq is better, that our own security is better, with Saddam and his two sons out of power . . . I believe indeed that we are.
"And I think that in time to come, if Iraq becomes . . . the country that its people want to see, then we can look back . . . with an immense sense of pride and achievement."
He acknowledged that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the stated reason for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and that some elements of postwar planning had been inadequate.
But there was none of the contrition that some of his compatriots had expected -- indeed, hoped for -- over a war that Blair acknowledged was deeply divisive at the time, and that continues to be. Even as he spoke in a hearing room across from the imposing Westminster Abbey, dozens of protesters outside called Blair a murderous liar who deserved to be tried for war crimes.
Many Britons believe he dragged their country into an unpopular and unnecessary war under false pretenses, a conflict in which 179 British service personnel have died.
Asked whether he had any regrets, he said he felt "responsibility, but not a regret, for removing Saddam Hussein," whom he described earlier as "a profoundly wicked, I would say almost psychopathic, man."
By turns emphatic and measured, Blair's testimony before the so-called Chilcot inquiry had been eagerly anticipated for weeks, with evidence given by some of his former ministers in recent days seen as a lead-up to the main event.
The war remains a stain on their country's reputation for many Britons, and a raw wound for those who lost loved ones in the conflict. In an unusual move for the inquiry, which was launched in November, 20 of the 60 seats allotted to the public for Blair's appearance were set aside for relatives of fallen soldiers.
For Blair, the inquiry offered a platform to try to rehabilitate his image over what will probably be viewed as the defining issue of his premiership. The panel's mandate is to draw lessons for future governments rather than to look for evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Wearing a dark suit and red tie, Blair began the first of his two three-hour sessions before the commission in rather subdued fashion. But the Oxford graduate soon settled into the persona the world became accustomed to seeing during his decade at the pinnacle of British politics: relaxed, well-briefed (or well-rehearsed) and convinced of the correctness of his actions.
Under relatively gentle questioning from the five-member panel, Blair contended that the security environment was irrevocably changed by the Sept. 11 attacks, and that Hussein's apparent determination to develop weapons of mass destruction posed a greater danger in a world of global terrorism.
He said that Hussein's continued flouting of United Nations resolutions required a strong response, backed up by military intervention if necessary.
At the time, intelligence reports indicated "beyond doubt" that Hussein was trying to build such an arsenal, Blair said. That intelligence has since been discredited.
In a rare concession, he acknowledged that a controversial claim that Hussein could deploy such weapons in 45 minutes was misleading and should have been clarified before it became almost a totem of the public debate over whether an invasion was justified.
But he denied suggestions that, as President Bush's staunchest ally, he had privately reached a decision with the U.S. leader to go to war months before the actual invasion. In recent days, the commission heard testimony from former government ministers that Blair had written a series of notes to Bush allegedly assuring him of Britain's support for military intervention.
Blair said his private communications with Bush merely repeated his public solidarity with the U.S. in disarming Hussein, without committing to military action.
In the end, Blair said, he had to make a judgment call based on the evidence before him.