'There Was No Lie': John Howard Says Iraq War Was 'Justified At The Time'

The former PM responds to the damning Chilcot Report.

07/07/2016 1:18 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:56 PM AEST

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard says he will not resile from his belief the Iraq War was justified, following the release of the Chilcot report damning Britain's involvement in the conflict.

Howard told journalists in Sydney on Thursday he took the decision to involve Australia based on the intelligence information available at the time.

In Britain overnight Sir John Chilcot delivered a damning report into his country's involvement in the Iraq war following seven years of investigations. The report found former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair relied on flawed intelligence of Iraq's weapon's capability while taking military action before all other peaceful options had been carried out.

"Regret, clearly, everybody regrets the loss of life in any military conflict and I've said before and I repeat it, the hardest decision that I took as Prime Minister, along with my Cabinet colleagues, was commit the men and women of the Australian Defence Force to military conflict," Howard said.

"It always bothered me but I believed that the decision to go into Iraq was justified at the time and I don't resile from that because I thought it was the right decision."

"We took the decision based on the information available. But having said that, I don't share the view that the terrible conflict in the Middle East is the direct consequence of the operation in March of 2003. I don't share that view."

Saddam Hussein had a long-term goal to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program once the threat of sanctions disappeared, he said.

Obviously I am sorry for anybody -- for the wounds or injuries that anybody suffered

"There's been this constant claim that we went to war based on a lie. There was no lie. There were errors in intelligence but there was no lie and can I also make the observation that the Chilcot Report imposes a standard of beyond doubt.

"Can I offer the view that when you're dealing with intelligence it's very, very hard to find a situation where advice is beyond doubt. Sometimes if you wait for advice that is beyond doubt you can end up with very disastrous consequences."

Howard rejected calls for the decision making process for Australia to go to war to be removed from the government executive.

"It is part of the responsibility of the executive and can I remind you that we had a very rigorous decision-making process, I think in fact our decision-making process in relation to this operated better than the decision-making process in some other countries," he said.

Howard was asked if it was time to apologise to the families of Australians killed in the conflict.

"There were no battle deaths in Iraq but obviously I am sorry for anybody -- for the wounds or injuries that anybody suffered," Howard said.

"That applies no matter whether a military conflict is a matter of controversy or not but if you're saying to me do I apologise for the decision that I took, the core decision? Well, I defend that decision. Of course I defend it. I don't retreat from it. I don't believe, based on the information available to me, that it was the wrong decision. I really don't."

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie says Australia needs an inquiry into its involvement in the Iraq war similar to the Chilcot Inquiry.

"Then Prime Minister John Howard took Australia to war on the basis of a lie and stands accused of war crimes. That he has never been held to account, and that his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is now Australian High Commissioner to London, is quite simply outrageous," Wilkie said in a statement.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop on Thursday said the Australian Government accepted responsibility for its decisions before the war.

"Of course the government takes responsibility for all decisions a government takes and we take responsibility for this one," Bishop told Sunrise presenter David Koch.

Former Australian Army chief at the time of the Iraq War, Peter Leahy, told the ABC Australia does not need to copy the Chilcot Inquiry, and pointed to a 2004 inquiry which concluded that Australia relied on flawed advice when it decided to join the war.

"Let's have a discussion, not an inquiry, around our relationship with the United States, how we decide to go to war and very importantly how we decide every day when we are at war to stay at war," he told the national broadcaster.

But Former Defence Department secretary Paul Barrett also believes a similar inquiry is needed in Australia.

"Australia needs a similar comprehensive independent inquiry into how the decision was made to commit Australia to this war," he told the Guardian Australia.

"Chilcot has demonstrated the fragility of the decision-making process to go to war. That fundamental power of the sovereign is left in the hands of one person, the prime minister."

Australia committed troops to Iraq in march 2003, with Howard telling the nation: "We are determined to join other countries to deprive Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, its chemical and biological weapons, which even in minute quantities are capable of causing death and destruction on a mammoth scale."

In January 2009, Former U.S. President George W. Bush honoured the "man of steel" Howard by presenting him his nation's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom.

But Wilkie, who quit as an intelligence analyst in the lead up to 2003 in protest of Australia's decision to join, on Thursday said the Iraq war "turbo-charged" al-Qaeda and created the circumstances for the emergence of Islamic State -- claims Howard described as "irrational".

"The terrorist danger confronting Australians to this very day is a result of Australia's involvement in Iraq," Wilkie said.

"Frankly the blood of the Australians killed in the 2005 Bali bombing, and in the Lindt Cafe siege and elsewhere, is on their hands.

"These matters have never been properly investigated in Australia and there remains a pressing need for an inquiry similar to Chilcot."

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