Tony Blair has moved to prepare the ground for the publication of the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war by offering a qualified apology for the use of misleading intelligence and the failure to prepare for the aftermath of the invasion.
In an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, the former British prime minister declined to apologise for the war itself and defended armed intervention in 2003, pointing to the current civil war in Syria to highlight the dangers of inaction.
“I also apologise for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime.”
But the former prime minister made clear that he still felt he made the right decision in backing the US invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. He said: “I find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam.”
Blair also made light of the claims that he should stand trial on war crimes charges and defended his policy of what he used to describe as liberal interventionism. The former prime minister contrasted what he described as “my ‘crime’” – the removal of Saddam – and the civil war in Syria.
“We have stood back and we, in the west, bear responsibility for this – Europe most of all. We’ve done nothing. That’s a judgment of history I’m prepared to have.” The former prime minister indicated that he saw merit in the argument that the Iraq war was to blame for the rise of Islamic State (Isis). “I think there are elements of truth in that,” he said when asked whether the Iraq invasion had been the “principal cause” of the rise of Isis.
He added: “Of course you can’t say those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.”
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, responded by saying that the “Blair spin operation” had swung into action as Sir John Chilcot prepares to set out a timetable for the publication of his report.
The Scottish first minister tweeted: “The Blair spin operation begins but the country still awaits the truth. The delay to Chilcot report is a scandal.”
In his long-awaited report, Chilcot is expected to criticise the use of intelligence that suggested Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war. The former Northern Ireland Office permanent secretary is also expected to say that the UK and the US failed to make adequate preparations for the aftermath of the invasion.
Blair’s office sought to downplay the significance of the CNN interview, part of a programme called Long Road to Hell: America in Iraq, to be broadcast on the network on Monday.
A spokeswoman said: “Tony Blair has always apologised for the intelligence being wrong and for mistakes in planning. He has always also said, and says again here, that he does not however think it was wrong to remove Saddam.”
She added: “He did not say the decision to remove Saddam in 2003 ‘caused Isis’ and pointed out that Isis was barely heard of at the end of 2008, when al-Qaida was basically beaten. He went on to say in 2009, Iraq was relatively more stable.
“What then happened was a combination of two things: there was a sectarian policy pursued by the government of Iraq, which were mistaken policies. But also when the Arab spring began, Isis moved from Iraq into Syria, built themselves from Syria and then came back into Iraq. All of this he has said before.”
Chilcot is preparing to outline a timetable for the publication of his report in the next 10 days. Blair will be aware of what criticisms Chilcot is planning to make of him because the inquiry chair has written to all key participants as part of what is known as the Maxwellisation process. It allows them to respond to criticisms before publication.
Chilcot was a member of the Butler inquiry, which in 2004 raised concerns about the intelligence before the Iraq invasion. The inquiry also questioned the way in which senior intelligence officials and Downing Street stripped out caveats from intelligence assessments.