CNN JANUARY 29, 2010 - by Simon Hooper


In the shadow of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and surrounded in all directions by monuments to the British establishment, protesters called Friday for Tony Blair to face war crimes charges as the former prime minister gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry.

"Blair lied, thousands died!" and "Tony Blair! War criminal!" chanted the few hundred who had gathered under gray and damp early morning skies, separated from the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre by chain-link fencing and dozens of police officers.

Some protesters donned rubber Blair masks and posed behind bars, their hands covered in theatrical blood representing those killed during the war in Iraq. Many said they wanted to see Blair put on trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

"We're calling for Tony Blair to be arrested for war crimes because of the illegal war on Iraq," said Susan Clarkson, dressed in a judge's wig and a red robe and claiming to represent a group called Judges for Justice.

At a nearby stall a woman selling "JAIL TONY" t-shirts was also doing a brisk trade in plastic handcuffs. "We'll see if we can get them on Tony later," she said.

Many protesters were disappointed that Blair, who had apparently entered the conference centre through a back entrance, hadn't faced the crowd. Andrew Murray, the leader of the Stop the War Coalition which had organised the protest, accused the former prime minister of "sneaking in two hours early" for his 9.30AM appointment with John Chilcot and his fellow inquisitors.

But student Suad Mikar said the protesters intended to let Blair know they were there. "I'm sure he can hear us," said the twenty-year-old. "That's what matters, we don't need him to see us. He knows everyone's opinion about it."

Politicians, musicians and campaigners were among those who read from a list of victims of the Iraq war, including coalition troops and Iraqi civilians, many who remained nameless.

"Wife of man killed, age unknown," the list read. "Child of Razzaq al Qassam. Child of Razzaq al Qassam. Wife of Razzaq al Qassam..."

Estimates over the number of people who have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion have been difficult to quantify and a source of argument.

The Iraqi Human Rights Ministry said in October 2009 that eighty-five thousand, six hundred and ninety-four people had been killed since 2004. The independent Iraq Body Count project reported in August 2009 that it estimated as many as one hundred and two thousand and seventy-one civilian deaths since the beginning of the invasion.

Left-wing lawmaker George Galloway said that Blair's actions in Iraq were "more terrible than the crimes of Macbeth" and called on the former prime minister to "commit hari-kiri in front of the world" on the steps of the conference center.

Musician Brian Eno said Blair deserved to be remembered for "his weakness and his arrogance."

Tim Summers said Britain was a "rogue state" and called on Blair "to present himself at The Hague on war crimes charges."

Sabah Jawad, an Iraqi man now living in the UK and a member of Iraqi Democrats Against Occupation, said he disagreed with Blair's claim that life in Iraq was better now than under Saddam Hussein's regime.

"The Iraqi people have been seeking justice for the atrocities that were committed against them since 2003," he said. "They are still paying a very high price for this illegal and immoral act and those responsible should face criminal charges."

Paul Seed, a retired statistician, said he had opposed UK involvement in the so-called "War on Terror" since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and said Blair's appearance at the inquiry was the end of a "long and very painful process of being lied to."

But he said he hoped the inquiry would influence the thinking of future politicians.

"Any politician who finds himself in a similar situation will think again about the possibility of ending up here as Blair has," said Seed.

"He is not likely to go to prison, he is not going to lose financially but he is certainly going to be acutely embarrassed and his legacy is going to be severely damaged. For any politician that is a severe price to pay."

Historian Richard Gott said Blair remained "hugely controversial and hugely disliked" in Britain, adding: "I think eventually he'll have to retire and live abroad because I think he'll be hounded for years to come."

But he said the inquiry had been a "very illuminating account of what goes on in government."

"The unspoken assumption of the inquiry is that what happened was an absolute disaster," he said. "I think that on the whole it's been a very, very positive inquiry and will eventually produce an extremely damning report."

But protesters at the site of a small anti-war vigil opposite the Houses of Parliament were keeping their distance from the main protest.

One of them, Brian Haw, who has camped at the site since 2001, refused to speak to CNN. But Babs Tucker dismissed the Iraq inquiry as a "media circus."

"They are having an inquiry in a cupboard behind the supreme court," said Tucker, who joined the protest four years ago and has camped there ever since. "It is an affront to everything that is decent. The whole thing is a joke."