Tony Blair reignited the debate about the West’s response to terrorism Sunday, with a call on governments to recognize that religious extremism has become the biggest source of conflict around the world.

In an article in The Observer, the former prime minister, who led the country into the bitterly divisive Iraq conflict in 2003, appears to acknowledge that previous aspirations to export liberal democracy focused too much on political objectives.

But sources close to Blair insist that he is not in any way indulging in a mea culpa over past interventions by the West, including in Iraq.

Debate over Blair’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq will return to center stage this summer when the long-awaited Chilcot report into the period running up to the war is published. It is expected to contain damning evidence of how President George W. Bush and Blair jointly engaged in a rush to war to topple Saddam Hussein in the face of warnings of the risks of triggering sectarian divisions across the region.

In Sunday’s article, Blair directly addressed the chaos left in the wake of the invasion when he argued: “All over the region and including in Iraq, where exactly the same sectarianism threatens the right of the people to a democratic future, such a campaign [for tolerance of other religious views] has to be actively engaged. It is one reason why the Middle East matters so much and why so any attempt to disengage is so wrong and short-sighted.” Critics of the neoliberal interventions of the last decade — including those in Iraq and Afghanistan — have argued that they rely too much on a political “freedom” agenda, focusing on the toppling of tyrants in the belief that the introduction of democracy would be a panacea.

But some fear that to focus too much on deep-seated religious schisms is to ignore the local complexities of such regional conflicts.

Saturday, Jonathan Eyal, the international director of the Royal United Services Institute, took issue with Blair’s analysis and any implication that Western governments were not informed before invading Iraq of the sectarian violence that was likely to be stirred up. “Predicting when religious differences may descend into outright violence is never easy,” he said. “But it’s just fallacious to claim that those who ordered and led the 2003 Iraq War lacked access to the necessary information about the complexities of that country’s ethnic and religious divisions, or could have ever assumed that they could complete their intervention without rekindling religious bloodshed.”

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