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Iraq: Blair Questioned By Parliament On Huge Troop Deployment To Persian Gulf

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing growing public opposition to the idea of a war in Iraq that does not have the backing of the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile, in parliament today, Blair defended his decision to deploy a huge military force to the Persian Gulf in preparation for a possible war.

Prague, 21 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- London's decision to deploy a huge land force to the Persian Gulf region has raised concerns in Britain about the likelihood of war with Iraq.

British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon yesterday told the lower chamber of the British parliament, the House of Commons, that about 30,000 British troops will be heading to the region in the next few weeks. "I am now in a position to be able to tell the House [of Commons] that we have a view on the composition and deployment of a land-force package to provide military capabilities for potential operations against Iraq," Hoon said.

The British ground forces will join a total of more than 150,000 U.S. troops due to be in the Persian Gulf by mid-February.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended the plan today while being questioned in parliament. Many deputies, including members of Blair's own Labour Party, oppose a war against Iraq without the backing of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

And opinion polls show Britons increasingly feel the same way. A study by the Mori Social Research Institute shows that 77 percent of Britons are against war without UN backing, an increase from 70 percent last September.

That same poll shows that if there is UN support, about 61 percent of Britons would support British involvement in a war. While still a majority, the poll shows that even conditional support for war has declined by 10 percent in Britain since September.

Blair told parliament today that such polls concern him: "I totally understand why public opinion is skeptical about Iraq. People will say: 'Well, what is the need? For 10 years, we've been containing Iraq. Isn't North Korea a greater threat?' All these arguments are familiar to us and are perfectly reasonable arguments."

Blair responded to those arguments by saying that the policy of containment has "only worked to a point" against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and has begun to fragment badly.

Blair said Hussein's proven history of using weapons of mass destruction against Kurds in the north of Iraq puts him in a "unique category" of brutal dictators.

Finally, without specifically mentioning the UN Security Council, Blair said the credibility of the international community is at stake. "Not only is Iraq a threat in its own terms. But if, having taken a stand on Iraq and saying they must disarm their weapons of mass destruction, we fail to make them disarm, then the consequences for the whole of the war, in respect of weapons of mass destruction [and] in respect to terrorism, is adversely impacted," Blair said.

Some parliamentarians who questioned Blair today wanted to know if there is any evidence linking Iraq to Al-Qaeda terrorist threats within the United Kingdom. Blair said there is no such evidence. "There is some intelligence evidence about loose links between Al-Qaeda and various people in Iraq. But I think that the justification for what we are doing in respect of Iraq has got to be made separately from any potential link with Al-Qaeda," Blair said.

Still, Blair said he personally believes that Al-Qaeda terrorists would try to use weapons of mass destruction in Britain, and elsewhere, if they could obtain them. And he suggested that Iraq could become a source of such weapons for Al-Qaeda: "I think it's important that we do everything we can to try to show people the link between the issue of weapons of mass destruction and these international terrorist groups -- mainly linked to Al-Qaeda -- who will do literally anything they possibly can in order to destroy and disrupt the lives of ordinary people."

Blair said he is confident that if it becomes necessary for him to order British troops into combat against Iraq, the British public will be satisfied with the reasons given to justify military action. "We're not in conflict yet, and I believe that the circumstances in which we will opt for conflict will be circumstances that people find acceptable and satisfactory, because there is no other route available to us," Blair said.

Analysts who have been closely following the growing antiwar sentiments of the British public, as well as rifts within Blair's Labour Party over the issue of war, say Blair is trying to keep his options open.

Rosemary Hollis, the head of the Middle East Program at London's Royal Institute for International Affairs, sees Blair as trying to acknowledge public concerns about possible military action. At the same time, she said he wants to keep open the option of supporting a U.S.-led action, even in the absence of a new UN Security Council resolution specifically authorizing military force.

Daniel Neep, who heads the Middle East department at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said U.S. military action against Iraq may begin within weeks rather than months. "I am reasonably convinced that the U.S. is seeking to deal with Iraq in a decisive manner, which could well involve military action in the near future," Neep said.

Neep said he thinks issues of military necessity may eventually take precedence over the need to placate British public opinion by obtaining a new UN Security Council resolution. "The formal legalistic time line [for military action] is there on the one hand. But on the other hand, there is the buildup of troops in the [Persian] Gulf. There's increased cost in keeping them out there for a long period of time without action, not to mention questions of morale and things like that. And, of course, the climate -- the question comes in. You really don't want to be going into Iraq in the heat of summer. The window of opportunity in which military action can begin is relatively limited," Neep said.

Neep described the task faced by Blair to win over British public opinion as a daunting one: "The problem of the U.S. and the United Kingdom is that they have to give the inspectors adequate time to do their work -- to be perceived as not putting pressure on them so that the [UN] inspectors can come out with an objective report, one that will win over public opinion much more than statements being released by either government. The problem with that is that the inspectors aren't necessarily going to find any killer evidence [that Baghdad is hiding weapons of mass destruction]."

As a result, most British analysts think Washington and London will give inspections only a limited amount of time beyond 27 January, when the UN teams must submit their first report to the Security Council on Iraqi compliance.

And the deployment of additional U.S. and British troops seems to be solidifying a general view that the time for diplomacy is rapidly running out.