LONDON Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a passionate plea on Friday for the West to use force if necessary against Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
Speaking at a London inquiry into the Iraq War where he was having to explain his decision to join the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Blair said the time had now come to "get our heads out of the sand" and take action against Iran.
"I say this with all the passion I possibly can," said Blair, now an envoy for the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers -- the United States, Russia, the EU and the United Nations.
The West had to stop believing it was responsible for the actions of Iran or extremists, he said.
"The fact is they are doing it because they disagree fundamentally with our way of life and they'll carry on doing it unless they are met by the requisite determination and, if necessary, force."
Talks are being held in Istanbul between western leaders and Iran over a standoff about its nuclear aims. [nLDE70K0AF].
Blair said he saw Iran's negative influence everywhere, supporting terrorism and impeding progress in the Middle East peace process. U.S. President Barack Obama's offer of a hand of friendship in 2009 had been roundly rejected, he said.
BLAIR'S BACKING FOR BUSH
Earlier, Blair told the inquiry he had promised to back the United States in taking action against Saddam Hussein almost a year before the 2003 invasion.
While Blair stopped short of saying he had promised U.S. President George W. Bush unconditional military support in early 2002 as critics have accused him of doing, he said he had always agreed that Saddam had to be dealt with.
"What I was saying to President Bush was very clear and simple, you can count on us, we are going to be with you in tackling this. But there are difficulties," he said, describing conversations between himself and Bush in summer 2002.
The timing of the decision for military action is important to opponents of the war, who accuse Blair and Bush of being set on it whether or not it was legal or had United Nations backing.
Critics say Blair, who sent 45,000 British troops, deliberately misled the public over the reason he gave for war -- Saddam's illegal possession of weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.
Friday's hearing was his second appearance, after being recalled to clarify evidence he gave in January last year following discrepancies with other witnesses' testimony.
He gave another generally assured performance in the face of far more rigorous questioning, although he sometimes appeared uncomfortable, stuttering over answers, or frustrated.
The decision to go to war was one of the most controversial episodes of Blair's 10-year premiership which ended in 2007, and about 50 anti-war protesters staged a vocal demonstration outside the inquiry's venue near parliament in central London.
Blair tried to soothe the anger of relatives of the 179 British soldiers killed in Iraq, incensed by remarks in his first appearance that he had no regrets about the invasion.
"I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life, whether from our own armed forces, those of other nations, the civilians who helped people in Iraq or the Iraqis themselves," he said at the end of Friday's hearing.
"It's too late," a woman in the public gallery shouted back.