London, 21 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - British Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing mounting criticism at home for joining the U.S. air strikes against Iraq aimed at diminishing the ability of President Saddam Hussein to build weapons of mass destruction and to threaten his regional neighbors.
Critics say the joint U.S.-British raids on Iraq over a four-day period may actually have strengthened Saddam's hold on power, while damaging Britain's diplomatic relations with the Arab world. Opinion polls show that one voter in three is opposed to British involvement in the air raids.
Some of the strongest criticism of the joint air strikes came from General Peter de la Billiere, who commanded British forces in the 1991 Gulf war, and from former Labor defense secretary Denis Healey.
De la Billiere questioned the political impact of the bombing campaign, saying aerial bombardments are not effective in driving people into submission, but tend to make them more defiant. He said there is a risk this will happen not just in Iraq but across the Islamic world.
De la Billiere also said that, although the U.S. and Britain maintain the attacks were carried out with the full authority of the United Nations Security Council, this is not the way it is perceived in the Middle East.
The Americans and British say they launched the air strikes after Saddam deliberately obstructed UN weapons inspectors. They say the goal is to degrade the ability of Saddam to build and use weapons of mass destruction, and to diminish the threat he poses to his neighbors.
During the bombing and missile attacks, almost 100 sites in Iraq were attacked by U.S. and British aircraft, and by cruise missiles fired from U.S. navy ships and B-52 bombers.
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said today that the air strikes had "set back by some years Saddam's capacity to deliver weapons of mass destruction."
"We have broken up his capacity to produce missiles and we have damaged his capacity to deliver chemical and biological weapons by the pilotless planes that he keeps," he said.
The U.S. and Britain justify their air strikes by pointing to a UN Security Council resolution in March that threatened Iraq with the "severest consequences" if it interfered with the UN weapons inspectors.
However, former defense secretary Denis Healey said yesterday that, in his opinion, the air attacks on a sovereign country were unlawful because they did not have the direct authorization of the Security Council. Healey also said that Blair was wrong to ignore the opposition to the air attacks from two of his European Union partners, France and Italy. He charged that Blair had apparently failed as well to consult the EU itself, something that would diminish British influence within the Union.
In effect, Healey, one of the Labor party's most senior statesmen, backed complaints from two of the Security Council's permanent members, Russia and China, which have denounced the Anglo-American raids.
The U.S. and British yesterday set out a five-point strategy for containing Iraq, which includes an increase in their forces in the Gulf. The strategy also involves toughening UN sanctions against Iraq, further isolating Saddam's regime diplomatically, drawing up a new weapons inspections plan, and fomenting divisions in Iraq.
Critics argue that Saddam appears to be as defiant as ever, and that his grip on power has not been loosened. But Foreign Secretary Cook says that Saddam's regime and his capabilities have been extensively damaged.
"He is weaker and he has lost that military capacity to threaten his neighbors and also to oppress his own people," he said.
Still, the critics say, once again -- as happened in the 1991 Gulf War -- a campaign against Saddam Hussein has ended inconclusively.