Blair deflects Hoon’s admission of Iraq ‘mistakes’

Tony Blair has accepted his government must take responsibility for the current situation in Iraq, on the same day as his former defence secretary admitted the UK and US made fatal errors in the aftermath of the invasion.

Mr Blair admitted to MPs that the situation in Iraq was “difficult” and “challenging” but reiterated his conviction that it had been right to remove Saddam Hussein.

He said the government accepts responsibility for “everything to do with the conduct of the Iraq war,” while maintaining it was right to be there.

“We removed Saddam, we’re fighting terrorism now in Iraq and our troops are there with the United Nations mandate and the full support of the Iraqi government,” Mr Blair said.

“I believe our job is to stand up for Iraq and its democracy against terrorism.”

The prime minister was speaking in the Commons after Geoff Hoon, who was defence secretary at the time of the invasion, admitted that the UK and US had failed to win the peace after ousting Saddam.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Hoon conceded there had been failings in post-war planning. He hinted at disagreements between the UK and US over key decisions to disband the Iraqi army and ‘de-Ba’athify’ the civil service.

“We didn’t plan for the right sort of aftermath,” Mr Hoon said, adding that with hindsight the UK should have anticipated the Sunni-Shia violence.

“Maybe we were too optimistic about the idea of the streets being lined with cheering people. Although I have reconciled it in my own mind, we perhaps didn’t do enough to see it through the Sunni perspective. Perhaps we should have done more to understand their position,” he said.

Mr Hoon indicated the UK had been opposed to disbanding the Iraqi army, as it had disenfranchised militarily trained Iraqis and allowed “Saddam’s people to link up with al-Qaida and link up ultimately with Sunni insurgents”.

However, he disagreed with claims the UK had got in “catastrophically wrong” in going to war with Iraq, but acknowledged the British public had lost confidence in the government’s foreign policy.

This had negatively affected the prime minister’s popularity, Mr Hoon added. “No one’s interested in subtleties of judgment or what was the case at the time,” he explained. “I think, especially when British soldiers are being killed, that the public have got to be pretty confident as to why. That’s why Tony gets the blame.”

Challenged by Sir Menzies Campbell in prime minister’s questions that the invasion should never have happened, Mr Blair responded that Saddam Hussein would still be in power if Liberal Democrat policy had prevailed.

He claimed UK troops are now under attack in Iraq, not because of the decision to invade, but the dual attacks from al Qaeda coming into the country, and Shia extremists backed by Iran.

“And our job in my view is to stand up to both of those elements since they’re precisely the elements we face in Iraq, in Afghanistan and the world over,” he added.

In an attempt to stabilise post-war Iraq, politicians from across the region and the west are meeting this evening for a conference in Egypt.

While attending the conference, the UK foreign secretary Margaret Beckett is expected to meet informally with Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki to criticise the country’s handling of the Iran hostage crisis.