Rashmee Roshan Lall
18 Nov, 2006 TIMES NEWS NETWORK
LONDON: Tony Blair has finally conceded the three-year-old invasion of Iraq has been a "disaster", in the British prime minister frankest admission yet that the US-led, UK-backed military operation is mired in the quicksand of poor planning, massive overstretch and failed objectives.
Though Blair did not himself use the word "disaster", he quickly agreed it was one, when asked the question by Sir David Frost, the languid British frontman of the brand new broadcaster, Al Jazeera English.
Al Jazeera English, which began broadcasting its unique mix of alternative news and views on November 15 has long trailed its inaugural interview with Blair as a "coup".
Observers said the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, which has long been accused of a decidedly anti-American agenda, had delivered a veritable trump card for critics of the Iraq war.
Late on Friday, Frost, a veteran interviewer whose notoriously laid-back delivery and sleepy style of questioning has elicited startling confessions from President Nixon among others over the years, asked Blair, if he agreed western intervention in Iraq had "so far been pretty much of a disaster".
Blair responded with a jaw-dropping "It has", words that President Bush's staunchest ally in intervention had so far never uttered, despite attempts to force them out of him by the British parliament, the more Bolshie, anti-war elements of his own governing Labour Party and a huge anti-war lobby across Europe.
But the British prime minister followed that up with the explanation, "It has, but you see what I say to people is why is it difficult in Iraq? It's not difficult because of some accident in planning, it's difficult because there's a deliberate strategy – al-Qaeda with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other – to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war."
Just hours after Blair's bald, if quicksilver, admission that the Iraq invasion had, in Frost's words, been pretty much a disaster, the anti-war lobby started to revive demands for his government to call an independent inquiry into what went wrong in Iraq.
Menzies Campbell, the leader of Britain's third party, the anti-war, opposition Liberal Democrats, said: "At long last the enormity of the decision to take military action against Iraq is being accepted by the Prime Minister. It could hardly be otherwise as the failure of strategy becomes so clear." He added, "If the Prime Minister accepts that it is a 'disaster' then surely Parliament and the British people, who were given a flawed prospectus, are entitled to an apology."
In an attempt to limit the damaging fallout of the prime minister's admission of an Iraqi disaster, Downing Street said on Saturday that Blair's views had been misrepresented. A spokesman for Blair said he often agreed with interviewers when he responded to their questions.
Blair's explanation was larded with the further stout assurance that thousands of British troops facing an increasingly hostile local population in Iraq would not be withdrawn prematurely.
He insisted, in what observers interpreted as a finger-wagging message to Al-Jazeera's estimated millions of viewers across the Arab world: "We are not walking away from Iraq. We will stay for as long as the government needs us to stay." He added: "Our task has got to be to stand up for the moderates and the democrats against the extremists and the sectarians. They are testing our will at the moment, and our will has not to be found wanting."
The al-Jazeera interview with Blair featured on a brand new series, Frost over the World, which has been heavily trailed by the channel as a show that sets the news agenda and makes the news rather than just reporting it.
Blair agreed to the interview months in advance of al-Jazeera's English launch in what is understood to be an attempt to speak directly to the "Arab street".
But pundits said on Saturday that Blair's attempt to have a "big conversation" without "intermediaries" with the Arab street was likely to have failed considering he had admitted disaster in Iraq but still refused to withdraw from the violence-wracked country. Blair also admitted that it could take a generation to resolve the problems in the wider West Asia region.