BRIGHTON, England – Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) acknowledged that the war in Iraq has divided Britain but said he had no apologies for helping topple Saddam Hussein (search) in a speech Tuesday to his Labour Party, where he was met by angry delegates and hecklers.
As he began his address, Blair faced a barrage of hecklers shouting from the floor of the conference. One delegate shouted, "You've got blood on your hands."
Blair responded: "That's fine, sir. You can make your protest. Just thank goodness we live in a democracy and you can."
The prime minister was hoping to use his party's annual conference to switch attention from Iraq to his campaign for a third term in office by announcing new domestic policies. But the event has been eclipsed by the kidnapping of Briton Kenneth Bigley (search) in Baghdad and the continuing bloodshed in Iraq. Two British soldiers were killed Tuesday by insurgents near the southern city of Basra. A total of 67 British soldiers have now been killed in Iraq.
Blair called on Britons to support his efforts to bring democracy to conflict-torn Iraq.
"I know this issue has divided the country. I entirely understand why many disagree," Blair said. Britain "should unite in our determination to stand by the Iraqi people until the job is done."
Britain's primary rationale for joining the war was the threat posed by Saddam's alleged arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. But the claims of an active and growing illicit weapons program, made in two British intelligence dossiers released in the build up to the conflict, have not been validated by evidence on the ground.
"The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons, as opposed to the capability to develop them, has turned out to be wrong. I acknowledge that and accept it," Blair said in his address, according to a text released as he began speaking.
"And the problem is I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam. The world is a better place with Saddam in prison not in power."
The war has eroded public faith in Blair's trustworthiness and judgment. His personal ratings have sunk and some Labour delegates believe he has neglected bread and butter issues such as schools and hospitals.
Blair bullishly defended the decisions he has taken as leader.
"When I hear people say, `I want the old Tony Blair back, the one who cares. I tell you something. I don't think as a human being, as a family man, I have changed at all. But I have changed as a leader. I've come to realize that caring in politics isn't really about caring. It's about doing what you think is right and sticking to it," he said.
Blair faced a further challenge Tuesday, as thousands of fox hunting supporters descended on the seaside resort of Brighton to protest government attempts to ban the sport.
Earlier this month, lawmakers in the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the centuries-old practice. The government has said it will force legislation through the House of Lords, which has repeatedly blocked a ban. Enthusiasts accuse the government of meddling in the rural way of life and say a ban will cost thousands of jobs.
One dead horse and two dead calves were dumped at sites close to the conference building and the town's railway station shortly before the start of the pro hunting rally. Police said they had arrested two men.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the incident, but it was widely interpreted as a symbol of rural anger over the impending hunting ban. Banners bearing the logo of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance were found beside the two decomposing calves, but the group said it was not involved.