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Britain awaits Blair testimony on Iraq

The hottest ticket in town isn’t for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s upcoming sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” or Lady Gaga in concert.

It’s for a one-off performance this Friday starring one of the most loved and hated of British celebrities: Tony Blair.

No doubt summoning all the charisma and powers of persuasion he can muster, the former prime minister is scheduled to appear before an official inquiry examining how Britain, under his leadership, signed up for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Blair, never one to shy from the spotlight, will find himself in the hot seat again, under pressure to answer questions as to whether he “sexed up” a report on Saddam Hussein’s possession of and ability to deploy weapons of mass destruction and lied to the British public about the reason for going to war.

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Even a politician acquainted with public grilling -- some might say heckling -- at the prime minister’s sometimes rowdy question time in Parliament every week might wonder if he’s ready for this close-up.

So intense is the interest in Blair’s testimony that more than 3,000 people have applied for the 40 seats allotted to the general public during each of two three-hour sessions Friday before the Chilcot inquiry, as the Iraq Inquiry is also known.

For many Britons, the investigation represents their last, best chance to get at the truth of a war that polarized the nation, a conflict that unleashed a massive wave of public protest and has cost the lives of 179 British troops, billions of taxpayer dollars and a large chunk of trust in government.

“The role, for me, of the Chilcot inquiry is a sort of cathartic role. It’s trying to help a country get over what was a deeply divisive moment,” said Philippe Sands, a lawyer who has been highly critical of the legal grounds given for the invasion. “If it doesn’t achieve that, then I think it will have failed.”

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The stakes are high for Blair as well.

He knows that, whatever else he might have accomplished in his decade as Britain’s longest-serving Labor prime minister, the Iraq war will forever be a black mark next to his name in many history books. His performance Friday could help soften the harsh image many of his compatriots now have of him.

For that to happen, some say, Blair would need to exhibit a measure of humility and contrition that he hasn’t been inclined to show, as well as an awareness of just how badly the war has scarred the country.

“My advice . . . is to apologize and say he does understand the depth of anger,” said Anthony Seldon, the author of an acclaimed biography of Blair. “He can say he was doing his best, he was under intense pressure, he’s reflected on it; he can say in hindsight he could’ve done things better and he’s let people down. And then people can re-relate to him.”

But, Seldon warned, the former British leader has so far shown little appetite for eating crow -- and anyway, plenty of Britons are so angry at him that nothing he can say will mollify them.

Since stepping down as prime minister in 2007, Blair has remained in the public eye and kept up much the same hectic pace he maintained while the occupant of 10 Downing St.

He launched a foundation to promote religious tolerance, made a well-publicized conversion to Roman Catholicism and has earned kudos for helping to improve living conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank as a special envoy to the Middle East.

Blair also earns hefty fees as a speaker, and recently raised eyebrows with reports that he has signed on as a consultant for luxury-goods purveyor Louis Vuitton for a cool $1.2 million.

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Any ambition he may harbor of rehabilitating his reputation as prime minister has not been made any easier by the evidence that the five-member Iraq committee has heard since it convened in November.

A number of military officers have spoken of the woefully poor planning of the invasion and its violent aftermath. A former British ambassador to Washington described the Bush administration and the Blair government as “scrabbling” to find the “smoking gun” that would justify a preemptive strike on Baghdad.

This month it emerged that Blair had written a series of notes to President Bush in 2002 assuring him that Britain would “be there” in the event of a military offensive against Hussein. The notes were sent to the White House without the knowledge of most of Blair’s Cabinet and before Parliament voted to approve war.

Many analysts see the evidence given two weeks ago by Alastair Campbell, one of Blair’s closest aides, as a foretaste of Blair’s. Campbell was a notorious figure in the inner circle in Downing Street, infamous for his profanity-laced tirades as the prime minister’s chief spin doctor.

At times ironic, at times feisty, Campbell insisted that his former boss was intent on exhausting all diplomatic options before resorting to war. He defended a Blair-approved report, dubbed the “dodgy dossier” by the media, containing the now-discredited claim that Iraq could launch chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes.

Britain ought to be “proud of” its role in bringing down a dictator as brutal as Hussein, Campbell declared -- suggesting that getting rid of a despotic regime was enough of a reason, by itself, to invade Iraq.

There are signs that Blair may be preparing to take a similar tack. Last month, he said in a nationally televised interview with the BBC that he “would still have thought it right to remove” Hussein even without the allegations of hidden weapons of mass destruction.

“I mean, obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat,” Blair said. His comments were pounced on by critics who accused him of having used a pretext for dragging Britain into war.

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When he gives evidence Friday, Blair will be speaking before an audience that will include relatives of troops killed in Iraq, for whom 20 additional seats have been set aside in the hearing room. That could add to the emotional charge inside the venue where the inquiry is taking place, a building directly across from Westminster Abbey.

An extra 700 seats are being made available for a simulcast in an auditorium next to the hearing room. Countless other viewers will be able to tune in via television and the Internet.

As an exercise in democratic accountability and as theater, many Britons have been fascinated by the proceedings, including Oscar-winning actress Judi Dench.

Echoing the sentiments of many of her fellow Britons, Dench told the Times of London: “I am riveted by the current Iraq Inquiry, though angry already because I feel it will end with a report and nobody’s actually going to be arraigned for what happened.”

It’s true that there may not be any legal action following the investigation, whose mandate is not to look for actionable evidence of criminal wrongdoing but rather “to identify the lessons that should be learned to help future governments who may face similar situations.”

But for Blair, a man acutely mindful of his legacy and reputation, the court of public opinion is probably as important.

henry.chu@latimes.com


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