Conciliatory Blair defends Iraq invasion

British prime minister says he would repeat action but knows people are `angry'


BOURNEMOUTH, England - Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that he had no question that his decision to go to war in Iraq was right, and he asserted that he would do it again in the same circumstances.

But in a speech that mixed unaccustomed conciliation and humility with his customary declaration of basic convictions, Blair added that he understood why so many Britons strongly disagreed with him and that he hoped they would come to understand that he had real reasons for acting.

"I know many people are disappointed, hurt, angry," he said, addressing the annual Labor Party conference, where many of the misgivings about his actions in Iraq and even calls for his resignation have been aired.

"I know many profoundly believe the action we took was wrong," he said. "I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me. I ask just one thing: Attack my decision, but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again."

Alternately confessional and determined, it was a subdued performance for Blair, a speaker with a history of stem-winding rallying calls to the faithful at the annual party conference. But yesterday he abandoned his jaunty stage presence for a more deliberate approach, substituting his signature broad grin with a set jaw.

The new style seemed tailored to the mission beginning this week, which is to regain the trust sacrificed in pursuing an unpopular war. His favorable standing, sustained for almost the entire six years since he came to office, has slumped since the war with the failure to discover unconventional weapons - his principal rationale for taking military action - and with suspicions that his government manipulated intelligence to exaggerate the threat.

He said he had acted in Iraq because he thought it represented the 21st-century threat of an outlaw state in a position to furnish weapons to terrorists bent on "another September 11 or worse" unless challenged. In response to critics of his alliance with the United States, he said, "If it is the threat of the 21st century, Britain should be in there helping confront it, not because we are America's poodle but because dealing with it will make Britain safer."

The line drew sustained applause from delegates, who, contrary to what many had predicted, greeted Blair's arrival in the hall and the conclusion of his speech with prolonged standing ovations.

He said he had received letters from parents of British soldiers killed in Iraq who did not believe in the war "hating me for my decision." He said he had also heard from parents who thought the war was right despite the death of their son.

"And don't believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters like that they don't suffer any doubt," he said. "All you can do in a modern world, so confusing with its opportunities and its hazards, is to decide what is the right way and try to walk in it."

He said it was wrong to characterize this as "being out of touch. After six years, more battered without but stronger within, it's the only leadership I can offer, and it's the only type of leadership worth taking."

At the same time, Blair said he recognized that there were anxieties about his leadership, and he acknowledged he was going through a "rough patch."

"I know the old top-down approach won't work anymore," he said. "I know I can't say, `I am the leader, follow me.'"

He also sought to convince the delegates that Labor's problems were not a crisis, just a return to rough politics as usual, and that overreaction would endanger the party's chances to remain in power.

"I've been trying to say this to you for the best part of 10 years but never quite found the words," he asserted. "But now that I've hit the rough patch, it's time to try again."

He said there had been a ritual to Labor governments in which the party ended up accusing the leadership of betrayal and the leadership reacted by accusing the party of ingratitude. "We've been far better at defeating ourselves than the Tories have ever been," he said.

Several of his closest aides had counseled him in recent days to follow the example of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she ran into difficulties and experienced Cabinet resignations. In answer to her opponents' demands that she do a "U-turn," she said, "The lady's not for turning."

Yesterday, Blair seemed to follow her example. "I can only go one way," he said. "I've not got a reverse gear."

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