BEIJING – British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) said Tuesday that going to war with Iraq was "the right thing to do" and that he had no doubt Baghdad (search) tried to develop weapons of mass destruction.
"It is better to be rid of Saddam Hussein," Blair told students at elite Tsinghua University (search).
The prime minister, nearing the end of a marathon Asian tour, was speaking a day after holding talks with Chinese leaders to heal strains in relations over the Iraq war, which Beijing (search) opposed.
Blair said coalition inspectors in Iraq were still looking for evidence of programs to make weapons of mass destruction, but added, "I have no doubts that Iraq was trying to develop these weapons."
The prime minister, with his characteristic wide grin back on his face after a difficult start to his Asian tour, seemed pleased to take questions during the informal, 45-minute session.
Blair is facing controversy at home over disputed weapons intelligence used to justify war in Iraq. He has rejected demands by opposition lawmakers to cut short his Asian trip and recall parliament following the suicide of military adviser David Kelly.
Responding to a student who asked whether he had any regrets about going to war, Blair said, "I believe that no matter how difficult it was, it was the right thing to do. In terms of the security of the world and the suffering of the Iraqi people, it is better to be rid of Saddam Hussein."
Such a session with students at Tsinghua -- the alma mater of Chinese President Hu Jintao -- is becoming a tradition for visiting foreign leaders. Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin of Russia both have spoken at the school and answered questions from student audiences.
During Blair's session, the prime minister paced among about 100 students who sat at tables set up in the foyer of a modern chrome-and-glass building. The session was held entirely in English and the mood was light, with Blair at one point complimenting a student on his bright green Hawaiian-style shirt.
Students asked questions on issues that ranged from tax policy to Iraq: Was Blair's Asian tour an attempt to distract attention from the Iraqi weapons question? And was it right for the government of one country to liberate the people of another?
"I do not believe that it is right for one country to go and invade another country and go to liberate its people," Blair said.
"But we do need to think as a world what happens when we have a country that is doing something very dangerous for the outside world and its own people," he said. "How does the international community respond?"
One student asked Blair how he felt when he heard of Kelly's suicide as he flew from Washington to Japan.
"This is a desperately sad time for the family of Dr. Kelly," Blair said. "His funeral has not been held yet, and I do not want to say more about this situation. There will, as there should, be a proper inquiry."
Blair left later for Shanghai, China's business capital, to meet with British businesspeople. Later Tuesday, he was due to fly to Hong Kong for the last stop on his tour.