Blair defends Iraq war policy

British prime minister says events of Sept. 11 showed `mortal danger'

March 06, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair argued yesterday that the possibility that Islamic militants will collaborate with states that possess unconventional weapons to carry out acts of terror justifies an aggressive new standard in international law for breaching the sovereignty of nations.

In a spirited defense of Britain's decision to go to war in Iraq, Blair said the United States and Britain were right in acting last year because the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks demonstrated a new and "mortal danger" to the West.

Therefore, he said, "this is not a time to err on the side of caution; not a time to weigh the risks to an infinite balance; not a time for cynicism of the worldly wise who favor playing it long."

However, he laid down no specific standard of evidence or intelligence finding for establishing the threshold level of threat that would justify military intervention by the international community or by other states.

Though Blair wanted to talk about the broader war against terrorism yesterday, he also acknowledged that his critics in Parliament and the news media might be right.

"Here is the crux," he said. "It is possible that even with all of this, nothing would have happened" had there been no war.

"Possible that Saddam would change his ambitions; possible he would develop" an unconventional weapon "but never use it; possible that the terrorists would never get their hands on" unconventional weapons in Iraq or elsewhere.

"We cannot be certain," he said. "But do we want to take the risk?"

The standard for the decision made by President Bush and Blair to invade Iraq has come under scrutiny as efforts have failed to find unconventional weapons that senior officials in both governments asserted were present.

Looking back over the past year, Blair implied that it would have been better to have acted against Iraq through the United Nations.

He called for unspecified reforms of the Security Council so that it could more actively "spread the values of freedom" in the world and at the same time "wage war relentlessly on those who would exploit racial and religious division to bring catastrophe to the world."

Speaking to his Sedgefield constituents in northern England, Blair talked more extensively than ever about other possible scenarios. He said Britain pressed hard for a second Security Council resolution specifically authorizing the war in the hope that Saddam Hussein might have been toppled without resorting to combat.

"My view was and is that if the U.N. had come together and delivered a tough ultimatum to Saddam, listing clearly what he had to do, benchmarking it, he may have folded and events set in train that might just and eventually have led to his departure from power," he said.

Blair's speech appeared to be another attempt to respond to the unceasing criticism of Britain's involvement in the war. The prime minister would like to move the country beyond Iraq to a domestic agenda of reforming education, taxes and transportation.

A report in January by Lord Hutton vindicated Blair and his government of charges that they had exaggerated intelligence on the danger from Iraq's weapons programs. But the victory, along with Hutton's criticism of the BBC's reporting, ignited resentment and calls for further investigations.

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