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Iraq assault a disaster: Blair

London, Nov. 18: Tony Blair gave a frank assessment of the invasion of Iraq on al Jazeera.

His frankest assessment of the prospect that the country could descend into civil war came as Margaret Hodge, a long-standing political ally, was said to have described the conflict as Blair’s “big mistake in foreign affairs”.

At a private meeting in London, Hodge, the industry minister, is reported to have accused him of “moral imperialism”.

Interviewed yesterday on al Jazeera television’s new English-language channel, Blair was challenged by Sir David Frost over the daily murders, bombings and kidnappings in Iraq.

Sir David said the West’s military intervention, which has cost 2,858 American and 125 British lives, had been “pretty much of a disaster”.

Blair responded: “It has, [but] what I say to people is why is it difficult in Iraq' It is not difficult because of some accident in planning. It is difficult because there is a deliberate strategy — al Qaida 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.”

Blair admitted that the insurgents, who killed four British troops near Basra last Sunday, were testing Britain’s will but insisted that forces would stay for as long as the Iraqi government needed them. Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel has angered London and Washington by broadcasting tapes from Osama bin Laden.

Blair used the interview to renew his appeal to Iran and Syria to co-operate in ending the violence and to secure a settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He rejected as “completely absurd” any suggestion that his readiness to work with two countries described by President George W Bush as part of the “axis of evil” amounted to “appeasement”.

Blair said the door was open for both countries to play a role in resolving the problems of the region if they were ready to give up support for terrorism and abide by their international obligations on issues such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The acknowledgement that the situation in Iraq was disastrous will fuel demands at Westminster for a full-scale inquiry into the conflict. It represents a significant concession by Blair to the growing band of critics who want troops withdrawn next year.

Last month Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, said Britain’s presence was contributing to violence.

Despite daily reports of bloodshed, Blair has defended Saddam Hussein’s removal, arguing that Iraq has a democratically elected government with progress being made on security.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the war was the worst foreign policy decision since Suez. Parliament and the nation were deserve an apology.

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