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U.K.: Blair Set For Feisty Parliamentary Showdown On Iraq

It's been a tough few weeks for British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- and most of his troubles can be blamed on Iraq. Support for his Labour Party is plummeting. Antiwar protests drew more than 1 million people to the streets. And today, disgruntled Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) are threatening to stage their biggest and most open rebellion on the issue yet, in Parliament's long-awaited vote on Iraq. So why is Blair gunning for war, and what risks is he running?

Prague, 26 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A current newspaper cartoon has British Prime Minister Tony Blair as an obedient poodle to George W. Bush's gun-slinging ape.

It's undoubtedly cruel, but it neatly encapsulates the view of many people in Britain, including a sizable number in Blair's own Labour Party -- that is, that Blair is obediently following a bellicose American president into a war few in Britain want.

Give peace -- and the UN weapons inspectors -- a chance, they say. Blair counters by saying that inaction would be "folly and weakness." Yesterday, he confronted his critics in a speech to Parliament. "If [Saddam] refuses to cooperate -- as he is refusing now -- and we fail to act, what then? Saddam in charge of Iraq, his weapons of mass destruction intact, the will of the international community set at nothing, the UN tricked again, Saddam hugely strengthened and emboldened. Does anyone truly believe that will mean peace?" he asked.

But Blair's hard line is costing him severely. Antiwar demonstrations drew more than 1 million people onto the streets of British cities earlier this month. Christian leaders last week warned Blair -- who considers himself a religious man -- that they find the prospect of war "deeply disturbing." Public support for his Labour Party has plummeted to its lowest level in years. And today, Labour MPs opposed to war are threatening to stage their biggest and most open revolt on the issue yet.

The Labour rebels have expressed their dissent before, but a vote in Parliament later today is considered their first real chance to formally register their objections to a military offensive against Iraq. Debate is scheduled to begin around 2 p.m. Prague time today.

The government will not ask MPs to vote explicitly on whether Britain should be involved in military action. Instead, it will put forward a motion voicing support for the government's efforts to act through the United Nations, and reminding Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein he still has a final opportunity to disarm.

The U.S., Britain, and Spain have introduced a draft of a new resolution to the Security Council that says Iraq has "failed to take the final opportunity to disarm." That draft is seen as likely to authorize a military action to force Iraq's disarmament.

But Labour rebels are hoping the speaker will allow MPs to vote on an amendment saying the case for military action is as yet unproven. And if that fails, they can still revolt by defying party discipline and abstaining on the motion itself, or even voting against it.

Rebel Labour MP Alice Mahon says she's hoping for support from up to 150 MPs -- including up to 90 deputies from Labour ranks. "We've got to get down an antiwar amendment because this is possibly going to be the last opportunity the House [of Commons] has to show its disapproval or otherwise. So really, it's crunch time," she said.

Even if the revolt is as big as Mahon hopes, Blair is still likely to win today's vote. That's because opposition Conservatives will cast their ballots for the government. But symbolically, it will send a clear message that Blair's leadership could ultimately be challenged.

So why is Blair gunning for war when public sentiment is running so high against it? Cynics might jeer, but observers say it's because Blair really does believe Saddam must be disarmed -- by force if necessary.

True, Blair's arguments for war have evolved and widened over the past months. First, it was Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, then Saddam's alleged links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. More recently, Blair has been stating what he calls "the moral case" for war -- that is, while military action may result in loss of lives, inaction also comes at a great cost by prolonging the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam's leadership.

But Blair biographer John Rentoul said the change has only been one of emphasis. Rentoul said the prime minister's problem is that he committed early on to sticking close to the U.S. And he is now defending a policy in the face of unexpectedly fierce opposition.

"I think he underestimated the extent to which there would be such a backlash of public opinion in this country against his position. You have to remember that in 1998, the U.S. and the U.K. launched Operation Desert Fox and bombed Iraq with no support from the UN, and [there was] barely a murmur from British public opinion. So no one could have expected a million people to take to the streets, and Tony Blair certainly didn't expect public opinion in this country to be so difficult to persuade. He assumed he could persuade public opinion when it came to the crunch," Rentoul said.

After all, Blair has followed policies far removed from his party's socialist roots -- and still won two general elections. Jeremy Richardson, a politics professor at Oxford University, told RFE/RL that Blair has also moved away from the obsession with opinion polls and focus groups that so characterized his first years in office.

In recent years, Brits have marched for causes that might seem trivial to outsiders -- lower fuel taxes, for example, or fox hunting. Little wonder, Richardson said, that Blair feels he should not change course when people protest in large numbers. "I think he's concluded that you can't govern according to public opinion. The fuel-tax revolt -- I think particularly he learnt from that, that this leads you into a kind of crazy kind of government, a populist government where you get buffeted by public opinion," Richardson said.

The biggest risk to Blair is that a war will not be as swift and clean as he's hoping. Richardson said that could boost the leadership ambitions of Blair's long-time rival, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. "I think there could be severe internal party problems for [Blair], and the chancellor, Gordon Brown, is lurking in the background. It's noticeable that Gordon Brown has said very little about this war, and I think there could be an internal revolt within the Labour Party even before the next election [expected in 2005]. It's a very high-risk strategy, but maybe he doesn't care. He's been prime minister for quite a long time, and maybe he thinks if he goes, he goes. But it's certainly very high risk for him."

But the future is fraught with risk for Brown, too. His handling of the economy has come under increasing fire recently, and his popularity ratings have plunged.