LONDON // The British prime minister Gordon Brown yesterday gave his most unequivocal backing to date for the military action that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003. "I believe we made the right decisions for the right reasons," he insisted to the Iraq Inquiry in London, as he portrayed Saddam as an international pariah and a threat to regional stability.
In a confident if never electrifying, four-hour appearance before the inquiry headed by Sir John Chilcot, Mr Brown - chancellor of the exchequer at the time - denied that he had been kept out of the decision-making loop by the then-prime minister, Tony Blair. While he acknowledged that he had not been part of the inner circle that had planned much of the UK's war strategy in concert with the then-US president, George W Bush, he insisted he had been kept fully briefed throughout 2002 and 2003.
Speaking self-assuredly in his somewhat dour Scottish baritone, Mr Brown told the committee: "I was given information by the intelligence services which led me to believe that Iraq was a threat that had to be dealt with by the actions of the international community. "I cannot see the argument that says the cabinet were not informed. We were informed fully about the process of the negotiations." Before, during and even after the war, Mr Brown had said little of Britain's involvement, leading many to believe that he had reservations about the enterprise.
Yesterday, he did his best to dispel the impression that Iraq had just been a "Blair-Bush war", even if he did it in a manner reminiscent of one of the less interesting guests on a TV chat show. Inevitably, comparisons were drawn between Mr Brown's performance and that two months ago of Mr Blair, the consummate crowd-pleaser and past master of the TV sound bite. Mr Brown knew it was not an act he could match, so he did his best to emphasise his more straightforward approach, playing the "ordinary bloke" to Mr Blair's media superstar.
Even Mr Brown's arrival at the conference centre hosting the inquiry was in marked contrast to Mr Blair's. The latter's limousine arrived more than two hours before the start and he was secretly whisked in via a rear door. Yesterday, Mr Brown's 4x4 pulled up outside the front of the centre 20 minutes before the inquiry was due to convene. He got out and walked purposefully through the main entrance, pausing to button the jacket of his dark blue suit.
Only a small knot of anti-war protesters was there to greet him, compared to the several hundred who had gathered for Mr Blair. They held aloft a large, blood-red-stained cheque for £8.5 billion (Dh46bn; the estimated cost of Britain's involvement in the war) and chanted: "Gordon Brown, to The Hague" - a reference to their demand that the prime minister go before a war-crimes tribunal. There had been speculation that Mr Brown might try to distance himself from Mr Blair's decision to go to war. But he did not.
He even had praise for Mr Blair, the man who stood between him and 10 Downing Street for a decade. "Everything Mr Blair did, he did properly and I was kept fully informed about the information that I needed to make my decisions," said Mr Brown. He insisted that "right up to the last minute, right up to the last weekend, I think many of us were hopeful that the diplomatic route would succeed". But Saddam was a threat to international order and had to be dealt with, in the end that meant by force, he said, expressing his belief at the time that intelligence on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction was correct.
He accepted, though, that there had not been sufficient planning for post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq. "It was one of my regrets that I wasn't able to be more successful in pushing the Americans on this issue - that the planning for reconstruction was essential, just the same as planning for the war," he said. Mr Brown said that there had to be an effective economic planning to achieve "a just peace", be it in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine.
Mr Brown also denied that British troops did not get the equipment they needed because, as chancellor, he had blocked funding. "I said that every single request for equipment had to be met and every request was met," he said. "At any point, commanders were able to ask for equipment that they needed and I know of no occasion when they were turned down." Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the only major UK party to oppose the war, said afterwards: "Gordon Brown's articulate performance cannot conceal the fact that military spending was inadequate, that intelligence was flawed and that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
"Seven years on, he has now allied himself, without qualification, to Tony Blair's decision to embark on the worst foreign policy disaster since Suez in 1956." * firstname.lastname@example.org