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Iraq: Analysts Say Blair Placating Antiwar Members Of His Party, But Not Softening

European analysts have been examining remarks made yesterday by British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the possibility of war against Iraq, either with or without the backing of a new UN Security Council resolution. Blair's statements are seen as an attempt to fend off strong antiwar sentiments within his own Labour Party. But RFE/RL reports that analysts do not view Blair's comments as a softening of his determination to see the removal from Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Prague, 14 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair, under strong pressure from an antiwar wing of his own Labour Party, is emphasizing the importance of United Nations involvement in confronting Iraq's alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Blair used a nationally televised news conference yesterday to express his desire to see a new UN Security Council resolution that authorizes force against Iraq. Significantly, however, Blair said he would not rule out the option of Britain joining possible U.S. military action against Iraq if there is no authorization from the Security Council. "The only qualification we've added [regarding going back to the Security Council for a new resolution], which is a qualification we've added throughout, and you will see that I've added this throughout, is if you did have a breach [of Iraq's disarmament obligations and] went back to the UN, but someone put an unreasonable or unilateral block-down on action, under those circumstances we've said we can't be in a position where we are confined in that way. However, I don't believe, as a matter of fact, that [that] is what will happen," Blair said.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw today reinforced Blair's remarks, saying that if war is necessary, his country prefers to fight with the backing of the UN Security Council but reserves the right to go ahead without it.

Rosemary Hollis, the head of the Middle East Program at London's Royal Institute for International Affairs, told RFE/RL today that Blair's use of the words "unreasonable or unilateral block" to describe a veto in the UN Security Council shows that he is trying to leave all of his options open. "That's being read here as him trying to keep his freedom to maneuver whilst also acknowledging the qualms and the concerns in Labour [Party] ranks and in the wider public," Hollis said.

Indeed, Hollis said the aim of Blair's press conference yesterday appears to have been to placate those within his own Labour Party who are concerned about the prospects of war. "He's woken up to the fact that he's got quite strong resistance within the Labour Party to going to war unless it has the full approval of the [UN] Security Council. So, essentially, he's trying to send messages to calm people who are worried that this would be something that was done unilaterally in support of the United States without the rest of the Security Council. And I think he is hoping and praying that the way forward will be enshrined in a new UN resolution. And that would save him," Hollis said.

Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations, said pressure from both Washington and London makes it highly unlikely that the other permanent members of the UN Security Council would veto a new resolution calling for force against Iraq. "The possibility of a veto is still extremely remote. None of the key actors -- neither the Chinese, the Russians, nor the French -- would probably use the veto knowing full well that it would greatly damage the credibility in the long run, and even in the mid-run, of the UN Security Council. I don't think a veto right now is in the cards," Moisi said.

Moisi said Blair's remarks yesterday appeared aimed not only at those with antiwar sentiments in his own Labour Party but also at those across Europe who oppose the idea of war against Iraq without the backing of the UN Security Council. "I don't think Tony Blair is changing [his] attitude toward Iraq and Saddam Hussein. But he is sensing the strong opposition of European, and not only Labour [Party], public opinion in England to the idea of unilateral war. And so he is adjusting to that. By the end of the day, he is still determined to see the removal of weapons of mass destruction which may be in Iraq," Moisi said.

Hollis noted one new position expressed by Blair yesterday: a remark that UN weapons inspectors now in Iraq should not be limited by an "arbitrary timescale." "That is a shift. There was nothing [in the past] about 'the [UN inspectors] must have as much time as they need.' It was much more about, 'It's all up to Iraq.' And there was no discussion of this timetable business. If [UN inspectors are given as much time as they need,] it could take us months. And nobody is able to figure out how that squares with the buildup toward war. You can't keep the war machine hanging around for months and months without all kinds of penalties. So that is where there is concern that the policy doesn't quite add up," Hollis said.

Indeed, Britain on the weekend announced a deployment of troops and naval vessels to the Persian Gulf region that represents its largest military deployment abroad since the 1982 Falklands war. With an additional deployment of 62,000 U.S. troops announced on the weekend by Washington, the United States is expected to have some 150,000 soldiers in the Persian Gulf region by mid-February.

Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said today that his teams need months to finish searching Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. Blix also warned that the UN inspectors may not get the time if the Security Council decides to stop inspections or if the United States takes military action without a new resolution.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said today that U.S. President George W. Bush has not put an exact timetable on when the inspections should be finished. But Fleischer said Bush thinks the UN teams do have time to do their job.

European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said today that the UN inspectors should be given more time to carry out their work if they need it.

Both Blair and Straw say 27 January is an important date because it is the deadline for a key report from Blix to be presented to the Security Council.

Blair did not indicate whether Britain is ready to wait months for a definitive answer from the UN inspectors.