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U.K.: Hussein's Capture May Help Tony Blair Regain Some Ground At Home

  • Jan Jun

The capture of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been welcomed enthusiastically by Britain's media and politicians, including Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair has seen his political fortunes fade as a result of the Iraq war and his unflagging loyalty to the United States, and some observers say Hussein's capture may help improve Blair's standing. But others suggest it may come too late to make any substantial change to the prime minister's standing.

London, 16 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Tony Blair avoided any expressions of triumph on 14 December in his initial statement following the capture of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Instead, he focused on the issue of reconciliation.

Observers have said that Prime Minister Tony Blair deliberately avoided any expressions of triumphalism in his three-minute live TV and radio statement on the capture of Hussein. Instead, they say, he was right to focus on long-term issues of Iraq's return to normal life.

"Where his rule meant terror and division and brutality, let his capture bring about unity, reconciliation, and peace between all the people of Iraq," Blair said.

British commentators welcomed Blair's moderate tone, but cast doubt on whether any reconciliation is likely in Britain or even within his party, which has been deeply divided by the issue of Iraq.

"The Daily Telegraph" newspaper, for example, notes in an editorial: "The hard-line Labour critics of the war are unlikely to be appeased by the capture of Saddam. They still want definite proof that Saddam possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and posed an immediate threat to his neighbors"

The newspaper, writing under the headline "Tyrant's Arrest May Let Blair Escape From His Own Hole," also cautions that Labour's resentment over the war has spread into a wide range of domestic issues, which may make it more difficult for the prime minister to escape his political setbacks.

Philip White is an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. "While the capture of Saddam Hussein helps Tony Blair to some extent -- and may, kind of [after the fact], give some sort of justification, if you like, in the minds of voters, for the war in Iraq -- I still think that trust and the difficult relationship with the Labour Party won't necessarily be helped by this," White said.

White says so much damage has been done to Blair's political standing that good news from Iraq may not be enough to reverse his fortunes.

"The main fact remains that the voters� trust in Tony Blair has completely evaporated, and it is almost impossible to regain. Trust is one of those things that you can have, but once you lose it, it's almost impossible to recapture it. And then the second thing is that he still has a very difficult relationship with a lot of members of the parliamentary Labour Party, who are feeling increasingly rebellious. They feel that they were lied to in the run-up to the war in Iraq," he said.

William Hopkinson is an analyst with the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and has been an outspoken critic of Blair and the war in Iraq. "There was much less enthusiasm in this country, of course, than there was in the United States for the war in the first place, and whilst Mr. Blair will obviously make the best of what he can now, to say we have caught the tyrant, I think people will remember that he said [the war] was all about the weapons of mass destruction -- which have not been found. So, I do not think there will be the same rejoicing in Britain that there has been and will be in the United States," Hopkinson said.

Hopkinson also warns that Blair's respite may be only temporary, as attacks on coalition forces may continue for some time. He also says Blair may face a massive political humiliation when the results of the Hutton Inquiry into the death of weapons expert David Kelly are announced in January.

"The Hutton Inquiry will be in itself, I suspect -- then of course, I do not know the outcome yet -- a major embarrassment for Mr. Blair. And in that sense, Saddam's capture has come three weeks too early," Hopkinson said.

Hopkinson adds another potential problem may come in the eventual trial and sentencing of Hussein. If the former Iraqi leader were to be tried at home and sentenced to death, it could mean trouble for Blair, whose Labour Party is firmly opposed to capital punishment, much like most of Europe. The issue could be yet another source of tension between the Labour Party and the U.S. administration, leaving Blair stuck uncomfortably in the middle.

In fact, Blair has already been asked to defend to parliament his argument for why Hussein should be tried in Iraq: "In relation to the death penalty, of course, this country remains opposed to death penalty, but this is going to be something that in the end has to be decided by the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people."

It could be argued that whatever respite Hussein's capture might have brought Prime Minister Blair may already have ended.