The former prime minister was yesterday accused of “breathtaking amnesia” and of “washing his hands of responsibility” by critics including First Minister Alex Salmond in response to a 3,000 word essay in which Mr Blair put the blame for the unrest on the sectarianism of the current Iraqi government and the civil war in Syria.
In a renewed call for military action, Mr Blair said the crisis was the “predictable” result of the West’s failure to intervene in Syria.
But his comments were met with scathing criticism from figures across the political spectrum, including his former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott and ex-international development secretary Clare Short, who resigned from her post over the war in Iraq.
In an eight-page essay on his website, Mr Blair – now a Middle East peace envoy – rejected as “bizarre” arguments that Iraq would be more stable and peaceful today if the United States-backed war, which claimed the lives of 179 UK personnel, had not happened.
He wrote: “Even if you’d left Saddam in place in 2003, then when 2011 happened – and you had the Arab revolutions going through Tunisia and Libya and Yemen and Bahrain and Egypt and Syria – you would have still had a major problem in Iraq.”
He added that Iraq was “in mortal danger” and that the blame lay with the sectarianism of the government of the country’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the spread of Syria’s three-year civil war.
“The choices are all pretty ugly, it is true. But for three years we have watched Syria descend into the abyss and as it is going down, it is slowly but surely wrapping its cords around us, pulling us down with it.”
Mr Blair made it clear that he was not calling for another invasion, insisting there were many responses between putting troops on the ground and doing nothing at all.
“I understand all the reasons following Afghanistan and Iraq why public opinion was so hostile to involvement. Action in Syria did not and need not be as in those military engagements. But every time we put off action, the action we will be forced to take will be ultimately greater.”
Yesterday Mr Blair reiterated his regret over the loss of life during the conflict, but insisted removing Saddam Hussein had been the right thing to do.
His intervention in the debate comes amid international moves to tackle the bloody insurgency by Islamist extremists and deal with its humanitarian consequences. Thousands have fled the sweeping advance of fighters from the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), who have taken control of large areas including the country’s second city, Mosul.
Isis captured two major cities last week but government forces are reportedly beginning to win territory back. US president Barack Obama is considering a range of military options – said to include air strikes – and on Saturday the US sent an aircraft carrier to the Gulf.
Iran, a key ally of Mr Maliki’s Shia-dominated administration in Baghdad, has indicated that it is ready to provide assistance and Britain is to give £3 million of aid to Iraq.
Reacting to Mr Blair’s essay, Ms Short said the former prime minister had been “absolutely, consistently wrong, wrong, wrong” on the issue, and branded him a “complete American neo-con”. She added: “More bombing will not solve it, it will just exacerbate it.”
Lord Prescott said: “I don’t agree with Tony as I didn’t then. He says we do it [intervene] where there isn’t open economy or open society. What he means is western democracy.”
Mr Salmond said: “Tony Blair has now claimed that the invasion of Iraq was about whether or not Saddam Hussein remained in power. Eleven years ago he said it was about weapons of mass destruction.
“He is guilty of breathtaking amnesia on his reasons for invading Iraq and clearly hopes everybody else will conveniently forget his 2003 decision, the consequences of which have played out over 11 years, with hundreds of thousands dead.
“We have reached a position where western powers’ ability to intervene in any conflict – even in a just manner – has been totally undermined by the legacy of the Iraq disaster, with a damaging loss of moral credibility.
“People across the Middle East are now reaping what Tony Blair sowed in 2003. No reinterpretation of history will absolve the former prime minister of a direct line of responsibility for this sequence of disasters.”
Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s ambassador to the US from 1997 to 2003, said Mr Blair was wrong and the handling of the campaign against Saddam was “perhaps the most significant reason” for the sectarian violence now tearing through Iraq.
“We are reaping what we sowed in 2003,” Sir Christopher wrote in a Sunday newspaper. “This is not hindsight. We knew in the run-up to war that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would seriously destabilise Iraq after 24 years of his iron rule. For all his evil, he kept a lid on sectarian violence.”
Former Labour foreign office minister Lord Malloch-Brown said Mr Blair should “stay quiet”, adding: “Tony Blair is half right … Iraq, like Syria, would probably have been a problem even without an intervention. But one wishes someone would tell him to just stay quiet during moments like this, because it does drive a great surge of people in the other direction.”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown said he was “firmly interventionist”, but said: “I don’t believe it is right in these circumstances in the way that Tony suggests.
“I’m having a bit of a difficulty getting my mind round the idea that a problem that has been caused or made worse by killing many many Arab Muslims in the Middle East is going to be made better by killing more with western weapons.”
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander chose to direct his criticism at the Iraqi prime minister. He said: “With the militant threat marching towards Baghdad, he must now act to deliver a strong Iraqi military response alongside a united and determined political front.”