LONDON // Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, will make his long-awaited appearance before the Iraq war inquiry in London amid mounting disquiet over not only the morality but the legality of the invasion. The 2003 war proved to be deeply divisive in the UK at the time. After recent evidence heard by the inquiry, headed by Sir John Chilcot, doubts have arisen over whether it was lawful and whether or not the government disclosed to the public its real motive for the invasion.
Mr Blair, who will face six hours of questions today, is expected to be asked if, as has been claimed, he signed up to military action in a private meeting with George W Bush, the then US president, at his Texas ranch in April 2002, almost a year before the invasion. Last month, in a British television interview, Mr Blair admitted for the first time that he "would still have thought it right to remove" Saddam Hussein even if the government had not believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) - supposedly, the only reason the UK went to war. "I mean, obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat," Mr Blair said.
The former prime minister will also be questioned on the so-called "dodgy dossier" presented to the House of Commons in the autumn of 2002, laying out the case for war and claiming, erroneously, that Saddam not only had WMDs but could launch them within 45 minutes. There will be questions over the legality of the action. The two senior lawyers at the foreign office at the time told the inquiry this week that they had advised Jack Straw, the then foreign secretary, that military action was not legal even under Resolution 1441 - the UN resolution condemning Saddam.
Mr Straw chose to ignore their advice and told them that they were being "dogmatic", they said. On Wednesday, Lord Goldsmith, Mr Blair's attorney general, admitted that he had been of the opinion throughout 2002 that war would be illegal, even after 1441 was approved later that year, and that Britain would need a new UN resolution to justify an invasion. That did not happen and, days before the war and with British military commanders on Iraq's borders demanding a definitive answer on the legality of the impending action, Lord Goldsmith changed his mind and gave it his legal stamp of approval.
He said on Wednesday that a trip he had made to Washington in February 2003 - less than a month before the invasion - had convinced him that the war would be lawful. Lord Goldsmith, a prominent barrister, said that it was "complete and utter nonsense" to suggest that Mr Blair had put pressure on him to change his mind. He said the Americans had made a strong case that the invasion was lawful under 1441 - now a minority view among international lawyers - and said that the military deserved an "unequivocal" judgement before troops went into battle.
Mr Blair, renowned for oozing a smooth confidence when put under the spotlight, is expected to stick to the line that Britain took action only after exhausting all diplomatic options. This has been the approach of his former senior ministers and advisers when they have given evidence over the past two weeks. Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's closest aide and government "spin doctor" supreme, set the tone last week when he told the inquiry that Britain should be "proud of" its role in toppling a brutal dictator.
Mr Blair, however, might not prove to be quite as proud of Britain's role in post-invasion planning, particularly as it has emerged that a year before the war, Mr Straw was warning him that no thought was being given to what would happen to Iraq once Saddam had been ousted. The former prime minister could also face the wrath of Sir John Chilcot, who has expressed his "frustration" that the government will not release certain classified documents, including private letters that Mr Bush wrote to Mr Blair in 2002.
One thing is for certain: today's appearance by Mr Blair at the inquiry has become the hottest ticket in town. Thousands of people applied for the 40 public seats available and a 700-seat auditorium has now been set aside so the public can watch the events on a television relay. Dame Judi Dench, the Oscar-winning actress, believes that Mr Blair's starring role is as much theatre as it is an exercise in democratic accountability.
"I am riveted by the current Iraq Inquiry," she told The Times of London, "though angry already because I feel it will end with a report and nobody's actually going to be arraigned for what happened." @Email:email@example.com