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Blair Concedes Mistakes

Times Staff Writer

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, pummeled over the Iraq war, faced his critics at his Labor Party’s annual conference Tuesday and said he had erred in accepting faulty intelligence that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed chemical and biological weapons.

But Blair said he regarded the war in Iraq as an important part of fighting terrorism. He said Britain could not shirk battling, in Iraq and elsewhere, “a wholly new phenomenon, worldwide global terrorism, based on a perversion of the true, peaceful and honorable faith of Islam.”

For those who realize the threat, he said, the only option is “to confront this terrorism, remove it root and branch, and at all costs stop them acquiring the weapons to kill on a massive scale -- because these terrorists would not hesitate to use them.”

The speech came as Blair, who hopes to unite his party and capitalize on its economic successes to gain an unprecedented third straight term for Labor in elections next year, struggled to overcome public perceptions that he did not tell the truth in the run-up to the war and that he had pandered to President Bush, who is unpopular in Britain.

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It appeared unlikely, however, that Blair’s concessions would sway hard-core critics of the Iraq war, who are pressing for a party vote Thursday on a motion to set a date for the withdrawal of British troops.

Similar to the political conventions in the United States every four years, Britain’s annual conferences in September are an opportunity for the three main parties to put forth their platforms and criticize their rivals before a wide television audience. This year’s conferences are particularly important, because they are expected to be the last before the next general elections.

Blair strode to the podium in a nondescript hall in this tattered but charming seaside resort, bathed in the rose-colored light projected onto the screen behind him.

In an hour-plus address, he reached out to the factions of his party who have been critical of his leadership -- with blandishments to trade unionists, Treasury chief Gordon Brown and London Mayor Ken Livingstone -- and spoke glowingly of his party’s accomplishments during his two terms in office on issues such as lowering unemployment, improving the national health service and increasing funding for schools and child-care facilities.

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But the banter and upbeat calls to the party faithful turned solemn as Blair turned his attention to Iraq.

After an antiwar heckler in the balcony said at the start of the address that Blair had “blood on his hands,” the prime minister said it had never been his intention to avoid discussing Iraq at the conference.

“I want to deal with it head-on,” he said.

He then offered a qualified apology for using now-disproved information in early 2003 to make the case for war.

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“The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons, as opposed to the capability to develop them, has turned out to be wrong. I acknowledge that and accept it,” Blair said, although he added that it was the best information available at the time.

“And the problem is: I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam,” he said softly. “The world is a better place with Saddam in prison and not in power.”

He asserted that he had made difficult decisions in good faith and that whether the Iraq war was justified, Britain could not now withdraw its forces from the country while violence was rampant there.

“Do I know I’m right?” he asked. “Judgments aren’t the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I’m like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong.”

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All in all, it amounted to the British leader’s strongest acknowledgment of mistakes in the lead-up to the war, delivered in a contrite tone and coupled with the concession that he had divided the party and made things difficult for his followers.

But, he said, referring to the ambitious, progressive agenda he was laying out for his party if it was reelected, he was convinced all the goals would not be reached if global terrorism was allowed to undermine stability.

“It’s simply that I believe democracy there means security there,” Blair said of Iraq, “and that if I don’t care and act on this terrorist threat, then the day will come when all our good work on the issues that decide people’s lives will be undone.”

Although Blair has been President Bush’s strongest ally on Iraq, he made no positive mention of the American leader, and at times the prime minister used language that, for a British audience, seemed like an attempt to differentiate himself from Bush.

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For instance, Blair said that “salvation will not come solely from a gunship” and that “military action will be futile unless we address the conditions in which this terrorism breeds and causes it preys upon.”

Blair also pledged that after the U.S. elections in November, he would make it a “personal priority” to help bring about a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The Bush administration is perceived in Britain as being reluctant to strongly involve itself in that conflict.

“Two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in an enduring peace would do more to defeat this terrorism than bullets alone can ever do,” Blair declared.

His address did little to satisfy fiercer opponents of his policy in Iraq. Clare Short, a former Cabinet minister, told Reuters news service: “I don’t think this speech changed anything on Iraq. Iraq will go on being a mess. But the party wants to win the election and will pull together for that.”

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In addition to the antiwar heckler, Blair’s speech was also briefly disrupted by a group of fox hunting activists, infuriated that the prime minister this month pushed through a ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales that would outlaw their sport in 2006.

As uniformed police roughly pulled half a dozen protesters out the door and then tried to track down a klaxon-like alarm they had apparently left behind, Blair joked: “Excuse me, if there are any more of you, would you mind standing up now?”

Several thousand hunting enthusiasts, meanwhile, protested outside the conference hall, their shouts and whistles unheard by those listening to Blair inside.

Labor, though still favored in the polls, is expected to lose some support to the antiwar Liberal Democrats in next year’s election, which could benefit the party’s main rival, the Conservatives.

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But Blair argued to his wavering Labor Party members that this was their chance to put a progressive, left-leaning imprint on Britain’s government for three terms running, describing it as an opportunity that should not be thrown away by working Britons who are most concerned about higher wages, full employment and more government funding and services.

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Janet Stobart in The Times’ London Bureau contributed to this report.


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