LONDON – Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) weathered yet another storm over the Iraq (search) conflict on Wednesday, vigorously denying he misled Britain over Iraqi weapons and refusing to apologize for the war.
Eighteen months after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq continues to dog the prime minister, but political opponents seem unable to land a lethal blow.
In a noisy House of Commons (search) session dominated by the war, Blair parried attacks over his handling of intelligence and won cheers of support from his own lawmakers.
"I take full responsibility and apologize for any information given in good faith that has subsequently turned out to be wrong," said Blair, who has already acknowledged that British intelligence was flawed.
"What I do not in any way accept is that there was any deception of anyone. I will not apologize for removing Saddam Hussein (search). I will not apologize for the conflict. I believe it was right then, is right now and essential for the wider security of that region and world."
Blair has come under intense pressure for months over his case for war in Iraq. His principal reason for joining the U.S.-led offensive was his belief that Saddam had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. The government highlighted the danger in a September 2002 dossier as it tried to persuade a skeptical public of the need for war.
No evidence has been found in Iraq to back up the government's claims, however, and Blair has faced repeated accusations that he exaggerated the Iraqi threat.
Four inquiries have cleared the government of deliberately misleading the public. But that has failed to satisfy political opponents, who say Blair should have told Britons that the intelligence was patchy at best.
Opposition Conservative Party leader Michael Howard on Wednesday reminded Blair that in the buildup to the war he'd told the Commons that intelligence had established the Iraqi threat "beyond doubt."
"Will the prime minister realize that before he can move on, there is one matter that he must deal with? He didn't accurately report the intelligence he received to the country. Will he now say sorry for that?" he asked.
Blair accused Howard of "playing politics" over Iraq. Howard supported the war, and his subsequent attacks have opened him to charges of "flip flopping" on the issue, like Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
Blair's popularity slumped after the war, and his trust and credibility ratings plummeted. But according to recent opinion polls, his position has stabilized and appears to be improving. In an ICM survey last week, 40 percent of respondents judged Blair to be Britain's most trustworthy politician, ahead of Howard at 29 percent; the poll had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
The fallout from Iraq has prevented Blair from switching focus to domestic issues, such as schools and hospitals. But his party is still ahead in the polls and likely to win national elections expected next year.
"He has weathered the storm. He did it brilliantly," said William Jones, a politics expert at Manchester University.
Impending national elections, expected in May 2005, seem to have crystallized support for Blair among his backbench lawmakers. Many were opposed to the war, but now want to move on and focus on winning a third term in office.
"People are rallying around the flag and everybody knows they are coming into the foothills of an election campaign," Labour lawmaker Donald Anderson, chairman of Parliament's influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told The Associated Press.
Anderson said many politicians were suffering from "Iraq fatigue" and that when Blair addressed his party's lawmakers in private this week, the only two members who raised the issue were "heckled and hissed."