Blair told: apologise for Iraq

Saying "sorry" is the hardest word for a politician. As Political Editor Graham Dines reports from Bournemouth, three top Liberal Democrats have demanded the Prime Minister apologies for Iraq.

Saying "sorry" is the hardest word for a politician. As Political Editor Graham Dines reports from Bournemouth, three top Liberal Democrats have demanded the Prime Minister apologies for Iraq.

FIRST it was Charles Kennedy. Then Sir Menzies Campbell. And lastly Baroness Williams of Crosby. Three of the Liberal Democrats' top hitters have used the Bournemouth conference platform to call on Tony Blair to admit to the British people that he was wrong to send troops into Iraq last year.

Of course, there's a fat chance that the Prime Minister will do any such thing. He seems as determined as ever not only to insist that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do, but that Iraq must be helped on the road to democracy by winning the war against terrorism.

And that war on terrorism is, effectively, a second war in Iraq, the Prime Minister said at the weekend.

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Righteous anger permeates all through the corridors of the Bournemouth International Centre, setting for what is likely to be the last Liberal Democrat conference before the General Election, expected in the Spring.

The Liberal Democrats have positioned themselves as the official opposition to the Iraq war after the Conservatives committed themselves to 100% support for the UK's assault on Saddam.

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Mr Kennedy joined the anti-war protest in London last year and he has been a determined – and because of that, a much maligned – critic of British troops being sent into action as an integral part of the coalition on the willing to topple the Iraqi regime and to restore democracy and peace to that country.

But the mounting death toll among allied forces and Iraqi civilians 17 months after "victory" was declared by President George W. Bush, as well as continuing world condemnation of the action, has proved to the Lib Dems they were right all along.

Mr Kennedy opened the Bournemouth gathering by castigating the Prime Minister for ensuring Britain's reputation as a "steady and stable" force in international affairs was now in tatters.

"I believe the basis upon which we entered the war in Iraq to have been the biggest foreign policy error committed by a British government since Suez."

And although he said it was too late to turn back the clock, Mr Blair must apologise for the "litany of betrayal" over Iraq.

"Prime Minister, why not even now admit you got it wrong?" he said.

"Apologise. Say sorry for the damage you have done, the anguish you have caused, the wrongs you can never now right.

"At the very least Prime Minister, just say sorry.

Baroness Williams – who as Shirley Williams is a former Labour Education Secretary and one of the founder members of Social Democrats – weighed in with her demands for a prime ministerial apology when she gave her valedictory speech to the Bournemouth conference as Leader of the House of Lords.

She insisted Iraq remained at the top of the political agenda especially after United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had declared the invasion illegal.

The war, she said, had increased the terrorist menace and plunged Iraq further into lawlessness and chaos. "The Government cannot move on, as our leader Charles Kennedy points out, until it admits to this, the greatest diplomatic blunder since Suez and learns lessons from it."

Key among these was a failure to influence the Bush administration in Washington over the so-called "road map" for peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine.

The party's foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell used his conference speech to call for troops to be pulled out once they had given Iraq the opportunity to govern themselves.

He recognised Britain had a moral responsibility to stay in Iraq for now because the Government had taken it to war and it could mean sending out more soldiers now to ensure the safety of troops already on the ground.

But that obligation should not be open-ended and without limit of time and then a phased withdrawal of British troops should be implemented as soon as a democratically elected government was in office.

Sir Menzies, recalling the debates and protests leading up to the war last year, said he was angry with Tony Blair – "not because I was deceived over Iraq, but because we were right."

Sir Menzies UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has declared the war was illegal, and that newspaper leaks had revealed that regime change was always the objective of the war. "We know all these things now. But the British public did not know them when it took to the streets in protest.

"And the House of Commons did not know it when it voted to endorse military action in March 2003."

With Tony Blair confirming on Sunday that there was now a further war being waged on Iraqi soil to squash counter insurgents and terrorists, Sir Menzies – who is deputy leader to Mr Kennedy – added: "Before declaring a second war in Iraq, the Prime Minister should surely apologise for the first.'

Among millions of voters on the British left, Iraq remains the number one issue. The Lib Dems believe – and to some extent the opinion polls agree – that Mr Blair's adventure in the desert could be a major vote winner.

There are many natural Labour voters who deplore what they see as the Prime Minister's adventurism and his support for President Bush, a hate figure among the British left.

Just how many of these critics of the Iraq policy are prepared to lend the Lib Dems their vote over the issue is one of the great uncertainties of the coming election.

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