, LONDON, Mar 5 – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown defended his role in the 2003 Iraq war on Friday, telling a public inquiry it was "the right decision" and rejecting claims he withheld funding from the armed forces.
Brown said that while he had not been closely involved in political decisions on conflict, he was fully informed and had done everything required of him in his role as finance minister under former premier Tony Blair.
"This is the gravest decision of all to make," he told the Chilcot inquiry into Britain\’s role in the conflict, but added: "It was the right decision and it was for the right reasons."
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was a "serial violator of international law" and taking action when he failed to comply with United Nations resolutions on his weapons programme was a crucial "test" of the international community, he said.
Brown\’s appearance before the inquiry is a political wild card just weeks ahead of a general election expected on May 6. The war, which led to 179 British soldiers losing their lives, remains hugely divisive in Britain.
Much of the blame for war has been laid on Blair, who appeared at the inquiry in January, but Brown is facing damaging allegations that he failed to properly fund the armed forces for the conflict.
Witnesses to the inquiry, including the defence minister at the time, Geoff Hoon, have said money was tight and a former chief of the defence staff also alleged lives were lost because Brown ignored pleas for funding.
General Charles Guthrie, who led the armed forces from 1997 to 2001, told Friday\’s edition of The Times: "Not fully funding the army in the way they had asked… undoubtedly cost the lives of soldiers."
The families of soldiers killed in combat have already demanded to know why the government did not equip troops with more helicopters and more robust vehicles which could resist roadside bombs.
However, Brown said he had told Blair in June 2002 that there would be no "financial restraint that prevented us doing what was best for the military" and nor did he turn down any subsequent requests for equipment.
"I said that every single request that was made for military equipment had to be met, and every request was met," the prime minister said.
"And at any point military commanders were able to ask for equipment that they needed and I know of no occasion when they were turned down for it."
He did admit "regret" for failing to better plan for the reconstruction of Iraq after the invasion, but laid some of the blame for this on the United States who had not given the issue "the priority that it deserved".
Outside, a small group of protestors brandished a blood-soaked cheque for 8.5 billion pounds (12.8 billion dollars, 9.4 billion euros), the estimated cost of the war that they said could have been spent on schools and hospitals.
"I think he (Brown) is politically as responsible as Tony Blair for the war, as he had the possibility of stopping it," Andrew Burgin, spokesman for the Stop the War lobby group which organised the protest, told AFP.
Brown admitted he was not at some key meetings Blair held in the year before war, but rejected the panel\’s suggestion that this was strange given his position as a likely future premier.
"I did not feel at any point that I lacked the information that was necessary, that I was denied any information that was required," he said.
"But my role in this was not to second-guess military decisions or options, my role was not to intervene in what were very important diplomatic negotiations… my role in this was first of all as chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) to make sure that the funding was there for what we had to do".
However, he gave his backing for the role played by Blair, his principal and often bitter rival within the Labour Party, saying: "Everything that Mr Blair did during this period he did properly."