Britain's foreign secretary at the time of the Iraq war said Thursday he had "never wanted" to take military action and only reluctantly came around to support the 2003 US-led invasion.
Jack Straw said that while he came to believe it was the only option faced with Iraq's continued defiance of the United Nations over its weapons programme, it was "the most difficult decision I have ever faced in my life".
Straw, who is currently justice secretary in Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government, gave evidence a week before former premier Tony Blair makes his long-awaited appearance on January 29.
Blair made no secret of his personal dislike of Saddam and there have been severe doubts about the intelligence used to justify the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which violated the UN resolutions.
Last month Blair said Britain would have backed the Iraq war even if he knew it did not have weapons of mass destruction.
But in an evidence session in which he often distanced himself from the former premier, Straw said a war simply to remove Saddam would have been "improper and self-evidently unlawful".
"It would not have got my support," he added. Without the foreign secretary's backing, Blair could not have gone to war.
In a 25-page memorandum he submitted to the inquiry, Straw said that from early 2002 "there was no secret whatever" that US military action against Iraq backed by Britain "was a possibility".
But he wrote: "Our foreign policy objective was the disarmament of Iraq and its compliance with (UN Security Council resolution) 1441, not military action against Iraq, nor regime change.
"I had never wanted war. But the strategy we had adopted to secure Iraq's disarmament was diplomacy backed by the threat of force.
"Reluctantly but firmly, I came to the view that to enforce Iraq's disarmament obligations, we had no option but to proceed with military action if Saddam Hussein did not respond to a final ultimatum."
If Saddam had complied with the weapons inspections regime provided for under resolution 1441, which was passed in November 2002, "that would have been the end of it from our point of view," Straw said.
WMD were never found in Iraq, and witnesses to the inquiry have acknowledged the intelligence pointing to them was "patchy".
Straw admitted the government had made an "error" in a September 2002 intelligence dossier on Iraq, which claimed Saddam had WMD that could be launched within 45 minutes.
"Plainly that reference should have been much more precise because it only ever referred in the intelligence to battlefield weapons. That was an error and it is an error that has haunted us ever since," he said.
But Straw said the intelligence was only "complementary to what was known anyway" about Saddam's aggressive behaviour towards neighbouring states, his use of chemical weapons on his own people and previous attempts to conceal WMD.
Straw insisted most other countries agreed with Britain's assessment of the threat, even though he was unable to get a second resolution explicitly authorising the invasion through the UN Security Council.
He laid some of the blame on Hans Blix, then chief UN weapons inspector, for failing to present his draft report detailing Iraq's non-compliance to the council meeting on March 7, just 13 days before the invasion.
On a personal note, Straw wrote in his memorandum that backing military action was "the most difficult decision I have ever faced in my life".
"I made my choice," he wrote. "I have never backed away from it, and I do not intend to do so, and fully accept the responsibilities which flow from that.
"I believed at the time, and I still believe, that we made the best judgements we could have done in the circumstances."
Source: AFP European Edition