By Michael Holden and William James
LONDON (Reuters) - Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's justification, planning and handling of the Iraq War involved a catalog of failures, a seven-year inquiry concluded on Wednesday in a scathing verdict on Britain's role in the conflict.
Eight months before the 2003 invasion, Blair told U.S. President George W. Bush "I will be with you, whatever", eventually sending 45,000 British troops into battle when peace options had not been exhausted, the long-awaited British public inquiry said.
More than 13 years since the invasion, Iraq remains in chaos, with large areas under the control of Islamic State militants who have claimed responsibility for attacks on Western cities.
Many Britons want Blair to face criminal action over his decision to take military action that led to the deaths of 179 British soldiers and more than 150,000 Iraqi civilians over the following six years.
Critics also say it fueled a deep distrust in politicians and the ruling establishment. The report was issued 13 days after Britons delivered a stunning blow to their political leaders by voting to leave the European Union.
The inquiry, which was given unprecedented access to confidential government documents and took longer to complete than British military involvement in the conflict itself, said Blair had relied on flawed intelligence and determined the way the war was legally authorized was unsatisfactory.
The threat posed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction - the original justification for war - had been over-hyped and the planning for the aftermath of war had been inadequate, it found.
"It is an account of an intervention which went badly wrong, with consequences to this day," said the inquiry chairman, former civil servant John Chilcot.
In a lengthy and passionate defense lasting almost two hours, Blair explained his decision to back Bush and go to war alongside the United States in March 2003, at a time when the inquiry said Saddam posed no imminent threat.
"I did not mislead this country. There were no lies, there was no deceit, there was no deception," the former prime minister told reporters, looking gaunt and strained but growing animated as he responded to questions.
"But there was a decision, and it was a controversial decision ... to remove Saddam and to be with America. I believe I made the right decision and the world is better and safer as a result of it."
The only Labour prime minister to win three general elections, Blair was in office for 10 years until 2007 and was hugely popular in his heyday, but Iraq has severely tarnished his reputation and legacy.
A statement issued by Bush's spokesman Freddy Ford said the former president had not had a chance to read the report but defended the war's goal of ousting Saddam.
"Despite the intelligence failures and other mistakes he has acknowledged previously, President Bush continues to believe the whole world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power," the statement said.
"I WILL BE WITH YOU"
The inquiry report, running to 2.6 million words, or more than four times the length of "War and Peace", shed light on the interaction between Blair and Bush in the months leading up to the invasion, which has long been the subject of speculation about secret deals and pledges.
In a memo dated July 28, 2002, eight months before the invasion, Blair told Bush: "I will be with you, whatever. But this is the moment to assess bluntly the difficulties."
Outside the building where Chilcot delivered his findings, protesters chanted "Tony Blair, war criminal". But the report itself stopped short of saying the war was illegal.
"We have, however, concluded that the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for military action were far from satisfactory," Chilcot said.
Reg Keys, whose son, 20-year-old Lance Corporal Thomas Keys, was killed in Iraq, said: "We all know who the key players are ... who took part in this most shambolic episode in British politics. We would like to see all those key players face some form of accountability."
He added: "If that's through the legal channels, then we will look at that and see what's viable and appropriate. It has been passed over to lawyers."
Blair said he would take the same decisions again, and that he did not see the action as the cause of terrorism today, blaming outside forces for continuing sectarian violence in Iraq and the legacy of the Arab Spring for the emergence of Islamic State militants.
However, he acknowledged mistakes had been made.
"The intelligence assessments made at the time of going to war turned out to be wrong. The aftermath turned out to be more hostile, protracted and bloody than ever we imagined," he said.
"For all of this, I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you will ever know."
Chilcot said there was no imminent threat from Saddam at the time of the invasion and the chaos in Iraq and the region which followed should have been foreseen.
Britain had joined the invasion without exhausting peaceful options, and thereby undermined the authority of the United Nations Security Council.
"It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged and they should have been," Chilcot said.
He also said that Blair's government's judgments about the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were "presented with unjustified certainty".
No such weapons were discovered after the war.
Throughout its report, the inquiry, which cost 10 million pounds ($13 million), criticized Blair's leadership, saying he over-estimated his ability to influence U.S. decisions on Iraq and took major decisions without consulting his cabinet.
NO STRATEGIC SUCCESS
The report listed a catalog of mistakes, saying the war was poorly-resourced, badly-planned and in the turmoil that followed the invasion, there was a total failure to conduct a reappraisal of policies with the only strategic objective to cut troop deployment numbers.
"It fell far short of strategic success," the report said.
Chilcot said Britain did not have the capacity to engage in campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and said it was humiliating that the military in 2007 had had to make a deal with a militia that had become dominant in the southern Iraqi city of Basra which Britain was supposed to control.
Iraq is still struggling with the widespread violence unleashed by the war. On Saturday, 250 people were killed in Baghdad's worst car bombing since the U.S.-led invasion.
"I wish Saddam would return; he executed many of my family but he is still better than these politicians and clerics who got Iraq to the way it is," said Kadhim Hassan al-Jabouri, an Iraqi who was filmed attacking Saddam's statue with a sledgehammer after the invasion.
Others said they were grateful to Washington and London for ending his dictatorship.
The purpose of the inquiry was not to point fingers but for the British government to learn lessons from the invasion and occupation that followed.
"We cannot turn the clock back but we can ensure that lessons are learned and acted on," Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament.
"It is crucial to good decision-making that a prime minister establishes a climate in which it's safe for officials and other experts to challenge existing policy and question the views of ministers and the prime minister without fear or favor."
Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of Blair's Labour Party and a fervent pacifist, told parliament that the war was an act of aggression based on a false pretext that had fueled and spread terrorism across the Middle East.
"I now apologize sincerely on behalf of my party for the disastrous decision to go to war," he said in a later speech.
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(Additional reporting by Kate Holton, Alistair Smout and Stephen Addison, and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Estelle Shirbon and Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Mark Trevelyan, Philippa Fletcher, Toni Reinhold)