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Blair proud and defiant

Bournemouth (England), Sept 28 (Reuters): A defiant Tony Blair today said Britain had nothing to apologise for over his decision to join the US-led Iraqi war and pledged to push on with domestic reforms despite a collapse in support for his leadership.

The British Prime Minister was in no doubt former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was “a serious threat to his region and to the wider world”, but urged people to wait for an interim report later this week from a US investigation into Iraq’s weapons.

As a close political ally said Blair would stand in another two elections, the Prime Minister came out fighting at the start of his Labour Party’s annual conference, billed his toughest since he became party leader in 1994.

Labour chairman Ian McCartney, opening the conference, urged members to put their differences aside or risk losing office, after a new opinion poll exposed deep splits in the party.

Labour is facing its worst poll ratings since Blair took over as leader and led the party out of 18 years in political exile to two successive landslide election victories. “I don’t apologise for Iraq. I am proud of what we have done,” he told BBC Television’s Breakfast with Frost programme. He also vowed no retreat from reforms to British education and health sectors which have angered many in his centre-left party.

Blair’s trust ratings have plunged after the Iraq conflict. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction — the main justification for the war — the suicide of an expert on Iraq’s arms and the inquiry into his death have all damaged him.

Scientist David Kelly killed himself after he was named as the probable source of a BBC report that claimed the government “sexed up” a pre-war dossier on the threat posed by Iraq. “Let’s just wait and see what the Iraq Survey Group find,” Blair said. “They’ve got interim findings, some of which will be made public later this week,” he said, adding he had yet to see the report from the US investigation into Iraqi weapons.

In a poll for The Observer newspaper, 41 per cent of Labour members said they wanted Blair to resign before the next election. McCartney warned conference-goers that bickering could cost Labour the government.

“We have to draw a line under our differences and face the next milestone, and the next milestone after that,” he said.

In another poll in the News of The World paper, 64 per cent of voters said they no longer trusted Blair, and a Sunday Times poll showed Labour’s support had fallen to just 30 per cent.

“I think we did the right thing in removing Saddam Hussein. I think the world is a safer place,” Blair said. “I don’t think we have anything to apologise for as a country.”

He also dismissed remarks by former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix that Saddam probably destroyed most of his weapons in 1991.

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