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U.K.: Blair Urges Parliament To Support Military Action In Iraq

Prague, 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair today asked parliament to vote in favor of sending some 45,000 British troops into action in the event of a U.S.-led military attack against Iraq.

Blair opened debate ahead of a vote expected later today on a measure calling for the use of "all means necessary" to rid Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of his alleged weapons of mass destruction. "This is the time for this House [of Commons], not just this government or, indeed, this prime minister, but for this House to give a lead, to show that we will stand up for what we know to be right, to show that we will confront the tyrannies and dictatorships and terrorists who put our way of life at risk, to show, at the moment of decision, that we have the courage to do the right thing," Blair said.

Blair told lawmakers he was "sad" that French President Jacques Chirac had been so determined to veto a new United Nations resolution on Iraq.

Blair also said the Iraq crisis "will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation." And he said to back down now would endanger the United Nations and would affect the way the United States engages with the rest of the world.

He also addressed critics who accuse Britain and the United States of waging a war for Iraq's oil reserves. He said a new UN resolution should be passed that would clearly spell out what would happen in a postwar Iraq. "[A new] UN resolution that should provide for the proper governance of Iraq -- it should also protect totally the territorial integrity of Iraq. And this point, I believe, is important also: that the oil revenues which people falsely claim we want to seize be put in a trust fund for the Iraqi people, administered through the United Nations," Blair said.

Blair is facing the biggest rebellion yet of his rank-and-file Labour members of parliament over the Iraq crisis. Up to 150 are expected to vote against Blair today and instead support an amendment that says the case for war is not yet established. That would surpass the 122 who voted for a similar motion last month.

Today's debate follows the resignations of three government ministers since the collapse yesterday of UN diplomatic efforts to end the crisis.

Yesterday, Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary and Labour Party heavyweight, resigned from his post as leader of the House of Commons, a government position. This morning, a deputy health minister, Philip Hunt, and a deputy Home Office minister, John Denham, followed suit.

One of the Labour dissenters, former Defense Minister Peter Kilfoyle, said war would be "idiocy." Kilfoyle is one of the members of parliament who proposed the antiwar amendment. He said they put the antiwar motion forward "because we're conscious of our interpretation of what is being said. My own [opinion] is to believe that this act would be illegal, it would be immoral, and it would be illogical."

But Blair is still expected to win the vote tonight, thanks to support from opposition Conservatives.

In a sign of how close the two parties are on the issue, the biggest heckling this afternoon was reserved for Charles Kennedy, leader of the antiwar Liberal Democrats.

One member of parliament shouted at him, demanding that Kennedy sit down and let someone else speak.

Kennedy responded: "No, I am not giving way. I am not giving way."

The House speaker then called for order. "The right honorable gentleman is disrupting [Kennedy's] speech," he said, adding, "Take my word for it: [Kennedy] is not going to give way."

The vote is expected around 10 p.m. in London.