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Blair said would back U.S. if Iraq diplomacy failed
LONDON (Reuters)- Prime Minister Tony Blair told U.S. President George W. Bush in 2002 that Britain would back military action if diplomatic efforts to disarm Iraq's Saddam Hussein failed, his former communications chief said on Tuesday.
Speaking for five hours before a public inquiry into the Iraq war, Alastair Campbell said there never was a "precipitate rush to war" despite the close ties between Blair and Bush.
However, Campbell said that Blair wrote personally to Bush to offer his support for military action if Saddam did not accede to United Nations' demands on disarmament before the March 2003 invasion.
"If that cannot be done diplomatically and it is to be done militarily, Britain will be there. That would be the tenor of the communication to the president," Campbell told the inquiry. He described the letters as "very frank."
Britain sent 45,000 troops to support the U.S.-led invasion despite widespread doubts about its legality and mass protests against it on the streets of London seven years ago.
Many supporters of Labour remain angry at Blair for leading Britain into a war in which 179 British soldiers were killed.
An official Dutch investigation, whose release was broadcast live on state television on Tuesday, was scathing about the Netherlands' involvement in the war. It said the Dutch government supported the war without legal backing and did not fully inform parliament about its plans.
Striking a typically defiant tone, Campbell said Britain should be proud of its role in Iraq and that the war may have helped to persuade Libya to abandon its weapons programme.
"Britain as a country should feel incredibly proud of the role that we played in taking (on) one of the most brutal, barbarous regimes in history and now we've got, a few weeks down the line, elections which look like they are going to go pretty well."
Campbell, a former journalist who was one of Blair's closest advisers from 1994 to 2003, said Blair had tried all along to disarm Saddam by diplomatic means.
"I think the prime minister was all the way through this trying to get it resolved without a single shot being fired," he said, occasionally checking his notes in a blue ring-binder.
He said that Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007, was concerned about the links between weapons of mass destruction, rogue states and terrorism and that these fears pre-dated the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda. No such weapons have ever been found in Iraq.
The five-person inquiry is seeking to learn lessons from the Iraq war. Blair is expected to appear in the next few weeks.
The inquiry comes at a sensitive time in British politics, with an election due by June which the Conservatives are forecast to win. Britain is also involved in an increasingly bloody conflict in Afghanistan.
Campbell said that current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who served as chancellor under Blair, was one of the key circle of advisers to Blair. Brown will not appear before the inquiry until after the election.
Campbell, who is now an informal adviser to Brown, left his job in 2003 after a huge public row with the BBC over claims the government exaggerated intelligence in the run-up to the war.
He defended "every single word" in a September 2002 dossier setting out the case against Saddam. He said even French President Jacques Chirac, an outspoken critic of the war, seemed to believe that Iraq had a covert weapons programme.
"There never appeared to be any doubt in his mind that there were weapons of mass destruction."
(Editing by Jon Boyle)
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