BOURNEMOUTH, England – Prime Minister Tony Blair (search), whose popularity has sagged after taking his country to war in Iraq, defended the policy before his restless Labor Party on Tuesday, telling members he would make the same decision again.
"Iraq has divided the international community, it has divided the party, the country, families, friends. And I know many people are disappointed, hurt, angry," Blair told the party's annual conference.
"I know many believe profoundly that the action we took was wrong. I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me.
"I ask just one thing: Attack my decision, but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again."
Dissent over the war has rumbled through the conference, although no debate has been permitted on the floor. Two of Blair's Cabinet ministers resigned to protest the invasion, and public opinion polls have charted growing disillusionment with the campaign to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Defending his decision, Blair said: "Imagine you are prime minister, and you receive this intelligence. And not just about Iraq, but the whole murky trade in weapons of mass destruction. And one thing we know, not from intelligence, but from historical fact, that Saddam's regime had not just developed, but had used such weapons, gassing thousands of his own people.
"And has lied about it consistently, concealing it for years, even under the noses of the U.N. inspectors. And I see the terrorism and the trade in WMD growing."
Blair acknowledged he had reached a "testing time" time in the 6 years since he led the party to the first of two landslide victories.
"I now look my age," joked the 50-year-old prime minister.
"I've had plenty of advice over what I should say in this speech. Some of it I've even asked for. One suggestion was leading you all in a chorus of 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,"' he said.
"So what do we do — give up on it, or get on with it?"
Blair said any politician could do popular things: "I know, I used to do a few of them."
Now, he said, he was "more battered without, but stronger within."
"It's the only leadership I can offer. And it's the only type of leadership worth having."
Blair vowed to press ahead with his plans for shaking up public services, including raising fees for university students and bringing private investment into the National Health Service.
A poll released Sunday found 64 percent of Britons questioned last week said they did not trust Blair and 48 percent think he should resign. The survey by ICM for the News of the World newspaper had a margin of error of three percentage points.
Blair's former foreign secretary, Robin Cook (search), told a meeting Monday that the war was disastrous.
"It is still possible to find colleagues who will defend the decision to invade Iraq," Cook said. "It is very difficult to find anybody in the parliamentary party who doesn't recognize it has been a first-class political disaster for the party and the Labor government."
Many Labor delegates resent Blair's decision to join the United States in invading Iraq, and the prime minister has been on the defensive because coalition forces have not found any weapons of mass destruction.
Treasury chief Gordon Brown (search) won enthusiastic applause from delegates on Monday for a speech in which he also insisted that controversial domestic policies will not be withdrawn. But Brown's language, and repeated references to Labor Party values, cheered delegates.
"Wonderful," Labor delegate Winston Vaughan said Monday of Brown's speech. "I think Blair will speak about the same things, but he will not get the same response. Party members are disillusioned with the leadership, and I mean the prime minister."
Former Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, now a European Union commissioner, urged Blair to stick to his policies in the face of growing discontent.
Blair must not change policies "simply because the winds that are blowing are fairly icy at the moment. It is called being in government," Kinnock said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview Tuesday.