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U.K.: Blair Far From Convincing Skeptics On Possible Iraq Attack

In a speech to Britain's trade unions yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair took on some of the harshest critics of his tough stance on Iraq. He stressed that the United Nations will be involved in resolving the Iraqi threat and that parliament will be consulted before Britain makes any commitment to military action. At the same time, however, he warned that "action will follow" if Iraq ignores international demands. With British public opinion overwhelmingly against an attack on Iraq, can Blair, Washington's staunchest ally, win over the doubters?

Prague, 11 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One British commentator said it was as if Tony Blair had covered his body in fish meal and lowered himself into a shark tank.

Certainly, the British prime minister faced a tough audience yesterday when he addressed Britain's Trade Unions Congress (TUC) and set out the case for taking strong action against Iraq.

Trade unionists are among the fiercest critics of Blair's hard line on Iraq, and for his staunch support of U.S. President George W. Bush's calls to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The trade unions are traditionally left-wing in their views, and were closely aligned with the old Labour Party, from whose positions Blair has distanced himself.

Instead of boos and jeers, however, the trade unionists gave muted applause to Blair's two-pronged speech. In it, Blair promised that "action will follow" if Saddam ignores United Nations demands to admit weapons inspectors.

But he coupled this with pledges to involve the UN in resolving the crisis, and to consult members of parliament before making any decision on an attack. "Before there is any question of taking military action, I can categorically assure you that [the British] parliament will be consulted and will have the fullest opportunity to debate the matter and express its view," Blair said.

John Monks, the TUC's general secretary, said Blair's assurances went some way toward the unions' position. And Derek Simpson, the former communist recently elected to head Britain's second-largest union, Amicus, said Blair and Bush are now giving the impression they will work against Saddam through the UN.

British public opinion is overwhelmingly against military action against Iraq, and there is widespread dissent among legislators on the issue, including from deputies within Blair's own Labour Party. True, some oppose action on principle and are likely never to be persuaded otherwise.

But has Blair begun to win over the other doubters?

Commentators note that, in his speech, Blair gave no new evidence to support military intervention. Publication of a long-awaited British dossier on the subject is still pending intelligence clearance. But they say Blair was clearer, at least, about how the UN will be involved.

Patrick Wintour is chief political correspondent for "The Guardian" daily. He said Blair did try to offer concessions to his critics in his speech. And he said the prime minister, a trained lawyer, is a "hugely persuasive man." But Wintour said Blair has a way to go before he can change the opinions of the two out of three Britons who oppose an attack on Iraq. "I think the big issue, which he has yet to convince the British public on, [is] that there is a real and imminent threat either to the region of the Middle East or to Britain through Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction. So he's got a lot of arguing to do. But I'd imagine public opinion will move in his direction, particularly if there's a full involvement of the United Nations," Wintour said.

Wintour said, however, that Blair did not offer any assurance that only the UN has the authority to authorize a military attack. For that reason, Blair can expect a rough ride at the Labour Party conference in two weeks, where motions on the agenda will call for UN backing of any attack. "I don't think he's actually completely given a guarantee that only the UN will sanction military action. Both America and Britain are reserving the right to take military action without the authority of the UN, so he will get into quite a big argument with the unions and the Labour Party. I think, in fact, some of the unions didn't quite understand what he was saying yesterday. They just heard this reference to the UN, and they thought that was enough. I think when they look at it in the cold light of day, they'll see they've not yet got what they've been hoping for," Wintour said.

Blair also used the timing of his speech to make the case for action. Imagine, he told delegates, that he had addressed them last year on the same day -- 10 September. "Suppose I had said to you: 'There is a terrorist network called Al-Qaeda. It has carried out several attacks, and we believe it is planning more. And so I want to take action to prevent that.' There would have been few takers for dealing with it and probably none for taking military action of any description," Blair said.

The argument doesn't sway Menzies Campbell, foreign-affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the third-largest party in the House of Commons, after the opposition Conservatives. Campbell said British people know Saddam's record as a despot and that he holds stores of weapons. But he believes before any military action is taken, it must be shown that Saddam has the intention to use these weapons. "What public opinion is going to have to be satisfied of is that military action is the only reasonable option, that it is genuinely the last resort, and the government's evidence of that is a long way short of what I think is necessary. If Saddam Hussein is called upon by the UN to allow inspectors to be admitted, if there's a new resolution, if he flouts directly the will of the UN, then I think different considerations might well apply. But it's dangerous in my view to speculate too far in advance," Campbell said.

Wyn Grant is a professor of politics and international relations at Warwick University. He said Blair should be worried more about a revolt among his own members of parliament than about grassroots opinion. A poll of 100 Labour parliamentarians last week by the BBC showed 88 percent think there are currently insufficient grounds for an attack. "He obviously is concerned about the extent of opposition within the Labour Party, even more so I think than the opposition within the trade-union movement and public opinion, because he'll be placed in a very embarrassing situation if he relied on support for this measure from the Conservative Party if there wasn't sufficient support from his own party on any kind of vote, which would, of course, only be an advisory vote in parliament," Grant said.

Grant said he therefore expects to see Blair make additional efforts to win over those doubters within his Labour Party.