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Tony Blair: I do not believe we can or should stand aside from the global struggle against extremism

This article by Tony Blair originally appeared in The Sun on 18 March 2013.

I understand why after long, hard and often brutal campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, people say: it’s a mistake - we should never have been there.

They look at the carnage in Syria and say: nothing to do with us.

They see what is happening in Mali and across North Africa and say: let someone else sort it out.

But I do not believe we can or should stand aside from the global struggle against this extremism and, although we pay a heavy price for intervention, we should not think staying out is cost free. I fear the long term cost if we take that path may be much greater.

10 years on from Iraq as well looking at the toughness of the struggle our forces faced there, we should think about what would have happened if we had backed away from removing Saddam.

Look at what Assad in Syria is doing to his people following the Arab upheavals and the effect on the whole of the Middle East, and then think what Saddam would be doing in Iraq and the impact it would have.

Yes, Iraq still has huge problems. The terrorists still commit their acts of terror. But that is not the whole picture.

In the north, 90 per cent say security – and life – has improved.

In the south, too, which British troops helped liberate and protect its people, change is happening with 300,000 new homes being built and electricity production being tripled.

Iraq has an elected Government. The economy is three times bigger than under Saddam. Prosperity and opportunities are slowly growing.

Such progress would have been unimaginable under Saddam who was a brutal disaster for the Iraqi people.

The arrest, torture and murder of ordinary Iraqis took place on a daily basis.

His policies saw Iraq’s economy shrink by two thirds.

He also posed a major threat to the region, having invaded both Iran and Kuwait.

I understand, too, the anger that Saddam turned out to have no active WMD programme.

But the view that he had a WMD programme was held not just by the intelligence services in the UK and US but in countries which opposed military action.

There was good reason for this belief.

Saddam not only developed these weapons but showed no hesitation in using them.

He ordered the routine use of chemical weapons in his war against Iran, a conflict which caused over a million casualties.

Saturday, too, marked the 25th anniversary of the attack on Halabja in northern Iraq when thousands died after bombs containing poisonous gases were dropped on the civilian population.

We can also see from Syria that there is a price for standing aside as well as intervening.

We are close to the point already where a higher proportion of Syria’s population have died in the fighting than lost their lives in Iraq.

I fear, too, when the civil war ends that the growing influence that extremist factions have over the opposition will pose major problems.

There was nothing inevitable about the violence in Iraq after Saddam’s fall.

The overwhelming majority of Iraqis want a peaceful, democratic future.

It was a minority – supported by forces outside – who were determined to thwart these ambitions through violence.

Our security depends upon ensuring these extremists, wherever they operate, do not succeed.

And this will inevitably, I’m afraid, lead to more difficult decisions in the future.

And that is the critical point. Iraq was tough because the enemy we were fighting - extremists backed by militant Islamist elements and by Iran - made it tough.

Deliberately they sought to stop Iraq from getting on its feet. Removing Saddam took less than 3 months. The battle afterwards, against the extremists, is still on today.

We were and are immensely fortunate in Britain that we have armed forces second to none who are prepared to wage combat with skill and effectiveness.

Their commitment and sacrifice along with many others including our American allies and many brave Iraqis, is the reason Iraq has a chance today.

In a region of turmoil where our interests and security remain linked, that is vital.

Of course not every intervention means troops on the ground. It doesn't in Syria. But Saddam would never have been removed without them.