Blair denies covert deal with Bush on Iraq

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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has denied striking a ?covert? deal to invade Iraq with George W. Bush at a private meeting in 2002 at the President's ranch in Texas. Blair told the Iraq inquiry in London there was no secret about what was said ? that Saddam Hussein had to be dealt with and ?the method of doing that is open?. Laura Lynch has been watching the inquiry.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Tony Blair remains unrepentant nearly seven years after ordering British troops to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The former Prime Minister testified for six hours today at an inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war. Blair stated that knowing what he knows today he would still have gone to war to remove Saddam Hussein. That decision is still deeply unpopular in Britain as some outside the courtroom made clear today. The World's Laura Lynch reports from London.

LAURA LYNCH: Protesters gathered in the pre-dawn gloom with their verdict. Tony Blair they shouted is a war criminal. Among them was American Jennifer Bromlick. She focused her anger on both Blair and George W. Bush.

JENNIFER BROMLICK: They should do something like this with Bush. I mean, Bush is ultimately answerable for this, for the Iraq war.

LAURA LYNCH: Blair never saw the demonstration. He arrived early going in through a side door. Two hours later he took his seat. Behind him were relatives of British soldiers who had died in Iraq. Well rehearsed in defending an unpopular war, Blair's hands trembled slightly as he readied himself for this round. Within minutes he was on familiar ground repeating his view that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were reason enough to take a hard look at Saddam Hussein.

TONY BLAIR: That completely changed our assessment of where the risks for security lay. Just so that we make this absolutely clear, this was not an American position. This was my position and the British position. Very, very clearly.

LAURA LYNCH: It's no surprise Blair wanted to be so clear. He's long been accused of doing the bidding of George W. Bush in Iraq. Today Blair was asked time and again about the former U.S. President, how he reacted to Blair's promises, what he expected from Britain. Blair denied any secret deals, but he did tell Bush that he would stand with him.

TONY BLAIR: I think what he took from that was exactly what he should have taken which is that if it came to military action because there was no way of dealing with this diplomatically, we would be with him. That was absolutely clear because as I had set out publicly, not privately, we had to confront this issue. It could be confronted by sanctions, framework that's effective. For the reasons I've given we didn't have one. It could be confronted by U.N. inspections framework, we'll come to that. Or, alternatively, it would have to be confronted by force. I was going earlier, but I won't do it, but I'm very happy to make available.

LAURA LYNCH: The questioning wore on about whether Blair exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam and about whether he had a strong legal case to go to war without explicit U.N. support. Blair stood firm. He made the right decision, he said, for the right reasons.

TONY BLAIR: As I sometimes say to people, this isn't about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception, it's a decision. The decision I had to take was given Saddam's history, given his use of chemical weapons; given the over one million people whose deaths he caused, given ten years of breaking U.N. resolutions, could we take the risk?

LAURA LYNCH: Blair tried to deflect several questions by focusing on the Iraq of today. Iraqi's he said, are better off now than they were in 2003. That prompted inquiry commissioner Lawrence Friedman to recite what he called tragic statistics, Iraqi's who have died in recent years.

LAWRENCE FRIEDMAN: 1,042 in January 2005; 1,433 in January 2006; 2,807 in January 2007; these are monthly figures. These are the documented deaths. They are not the, goodness knows how many undocumented - - the deaths from the deterioration in services, poverty, poor health and so on. The striking is they are getting worse each year.

LAURA LYNCH: In the final minutes Blair said he was sorry for the deep divisions the Iraq war caused in Britain, but that seemed to be about as far as he would go with apologies to the evident frustration of those sitting just feet away.

TONY BLAIR: I've no regrets. Responsibility, but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein. I think he was a monster. I believed he threatened not just the region, but the world. His defense complete, Blair left quickly. His bodyguards close behind. The families, too, made their way outside. Many like Reg Keys, upset by what they had just seen and heard.

REG KEYS: He had an opportunity there to apply some soothing balm to some of the open wounds of grief that are in that room. I saw a couple of mothers in there break down at the end in tears because the man, all he had to say was to assuage the grief was I do regret the loss of life, but he's quite remorseless, no regret at all.

LAURA LYNCH: No one really expected Blair to back down, to admit mistakes or reconsider. Today he said he would do it all again in the name of making Britain safer. But in the same week British officials raised the country's threat level to severe, many still believe Blair sent his troops into an illegal war with questionable results. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch in London.