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Great Britain: Blair Says Saddam's Refusal To Destroy Weapons Caused Attack

London, 17 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair will tell an emergency parliamentary debate today that there was no alternative to air strikes against Iraq because of President Saddam Hussein's refusal to honor his commitment to destroy weapons of mass destruction.

Britain is alone among the European allies in backing the U.S. with aircraft and military personnel. British forces did not take part in last night's attacks, but 12 Royal Air Force Tornado planes are standing by in Kuwait to join the strikes, expected to last several days.

Blair, who has spoken to U.S. President Bill Clinton twice by telephone in the past 36 hours, said the decision to strike at Iraq had been taken after more than a year of broken promises by Saddam.

Blair speaking late yesterday, London time:

"Our quarrel is with (Saddam Hussein) alone and the evil regime he represents. There is no realistic alternative to military force. We are taking this military action with real regret but also with real determination. We have exhausted all other avenues. We act because we must."

Blair said Saddam had no intention of honoring the commitment he made to the UN after the Gulf War to destroy his weapons of mass destruction and agree to monitoring by UN weapons inspectors. He said that if Saddam is not stopped now, there would be serious consequences for the safety and stability of the region, and of the wider world.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said today that the strikes by U.S. cruise missiles, which began early today Baghdad time, were aimed at suppressing Iraq's air-defense structures. He said British aircraft will be, in his words, "heavily involved in future phases, providing about one-fifth of all manned aircraft sorties." Cook says the strikes are aimed at diminishing what he called Saddam Hussein's "war machine."

"We have prepared targeting plans that are very clearly targeted on military installations and designed to achieve our two clear objectives: First of all, to stop his programs to develop weapons of mass terror, chemical and biological weapons, with which he could threaten whole cities in the region, and secondly, to sharply diminish the military war machine he maintains, both to threaten his neighbors and to suppress his own people."

Cook also challenged a statement today by Russian President Boris Yeltsin that the joint U.S.-British action was a violation of the UN Charter, and was fraught with the most dramatic consequences. Cook said both Britain and the U.S. are satisfied they have clear authority to take action from UN resolutions which Russia itself supported.

But commentators say there is some nervousness in London that the Blair action in participating in air strikes will upset some of Britain's European allies. Blair made telephone calls last night to French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Chancellor Viktor Klima of Austria, which holds the EU presidency until the end of the month. Today, he is expected to send a letter to leaders of all the European allies, as well as to Arab leaders, explaining why Britain has taken action. In joining the U.S. action against Iraq, Blair has received the support of Britain's main opposition parties. But he came under fire last night from anti-war demonstrators who staged a candle-lit protest outside his official residence. He has also been criticized by the pacifist wing of his own Labour Party. Labour parliamentarian George Galloway said today that Operation Desert Fox --the military name for the attacks against Saddam-- will lead to the killing of innocent civilians.

"This is a spasmodic act of violence which is killing innocent people. Indeed, one of the missiles has even landed in Iran. It missed Iraq altogether. So much for smart weapons."

Earlier, Iran's foreign ministry had said that a missile, believed launched from U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, had hit southern Iran.

Editorials in most of Britain's newspapers today supported the joint U.S.-British action against Iraq. But they speculated that the military action would be brief, saying it would be folly to continue bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in a few days' time.