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We should be proud of Iraq war, insists a defiant Tony Blair

His voice was hoarse from six hours of questioning. But still he was unrepentant. To gasps of anger from grieving relatives Tony Blair used the final moments of his evidence to the Iraq Inquiry to justify leading Britain in one of the country's most divisive conflicts in its history.

Asked by the inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot whether he had any regrets, he replied: “Responsibility but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein. I think that he was a monster. I believe he threatened not just the region but the world. And in the circumstances that we faced then, but I think even if you look back now, it was better to deal with this threat, to remove him from office.”

Sir John appealed for calm as a heckler shouted: “What, no regrets? Come on!” His voice fading, Mr Blair insisted that Britain, especially its the armed forces, should feel an “immense sense of pride” over the Iraq war.

He added: “I had to take this decision as Prime Minister. It was a huge responsibility and there is not a single day that passes by that I don't reflect and think about that responsibility.” He insisted that the war, which cost the lives of 179 British soldiers, was justified despite the failure to uncover any weapons of mass destruction.

The former Prime Minister closed his long-awaited appearance before the Chilcot Inquiry by arguing that the world was a safer place following the war.

He also admitted making mistakes in preparing for the aftermath of the invasion and in presenting the case for war. But he was otherwise unrepentant about joining the US-led military action in March 2003, making plain he was preparing to send British troops into Iraq long before that.

Although weapons of mass destruction were never uncovered in Iraq, Mr Blair argued that Saddam “retained absolutely the intent and the intellectual know-how to restart a nuclear and a chemical weapons programme”.

Police mounted massive security outside the QE2 Exhibition Centre in Westminster as Mr Blair was smuggled in through a rear entrance to give evidence. Before the cross-examination began Sir John Chilcot appealed to members of the audience not to heckle Mr Blair — and warned his witness to be truthful.

Once the questioning began the former Prime Minister fiercely denied misleading the country in the countdown to war. He said: “This isn't about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception. It's (about) a decision.”

Mr Blair dismissed claims by Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to Washington, that he had secretly committed to join an invasion when he met George Bush at the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 — almost 11 months before the war began.

Mr Blair said that during the meeting he was still pressing for a fresh attempt to bring Saddam to heel though the United Nations.

But when asked what message he believed Mr Bush took from the talks, he said: “Exactly what he should have taken — if it came to military action because there was no way of dealing with this diplomatically, we would be with him.”

Mr Blair told the inquiry he believed the “calculus of risk” posed by rogue states changed completely following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Before then the international community had relied on a “hoping for the best” strategy of containing Saddam Hussein through targeted sanctions and enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq. But he admitted that it was the “risk calculation” that had altered since 9/11, rather than the intelligence about WMDs.

Apparently contradicting assertions at the time about the “growing” threat from Saddam, Mr Blair said: “It wasn't that objectively (Saddam) had done more... it was that our perception of the risk had shifted.”

Later Mr Blair said he stood by his use of the word “growing” in the September 2002 dossier making the case for war, pointing to claims that Saddam had mobile units for unleashing biological weapons.

Mr Blair, who said the dossier was regarded as “somewhat dull and cautious at the time”, also maintained he was right to assert in the document that was “beyond doubt” that Saddam had developed WMDs.

“I did believe it. I did believe, frankly, beyond doubt,” he said.

Mr Blair did acknowledge that the Government should have made clear that the notorious claim Saddam could launch weapons within 45 minutes referred to battlefield munitions rather than long-range missiles.

He said newspaper reports focusing on the 45-minute claim should have been corrected.

But in a reference to the battle between the Government and the BBC over the claim, and the death of weapons scientist David Kelly, he said the issue took on a “far greater significance” in the light of later events.

Belfast Telegraph