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U.K.: Blair Faces Revolt In Parliament Over Use Of Force Against Iraq

Three ministers have now resigned from the British government in protest at its decision yesterday to abandon diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis. The resignations come as Prime Minister Tony Blair looks set to suffer a major revolt by his own deputies today, when he is expected to ask Parliament to back "all means necessary" to disarm Iraq -- a reference to war.

Prague, 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday was his "darkest day." Last week was his "week from hell." Tony Blair is a "prime monster."

Even by the standards of the last few weeks, Britain's prime minister is having a rough time, it seems, judging by these newspaper headlines in recent days.

It's all over his insistence that Britain stick by the U.S. in threatening to disarm Iraq by force. That's a prospect that is now looming ever nearer, after the U.S., Britain, and Spain yesterday ended diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis and withdrew their draft resolution authorizing force, due to a lack of support in the UN Security Council.

U.S. President George W. Bush last night gave Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave the country or face military action.

The fallout for Blair was immediate. 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, two junior ministers (Deputy Health Minister Philip Hunt and Deputy Interior Minister John Denham) followed suit.

It all comes as Blair prepares to ask deputies to back "all means necessary" to disarm Iraq -- a reference to war. Foreign Minister Jack Straw said last night: "As a result of Saddam Hussein's persistent refusal to meet the United Nations' demands and the inability of the Security Council to adopt a further resolution, the cabinet has decided to ask the House [of Commons] to support the United Kingdom's participation in military operations, should they be necessary, with the objective of ensuring the disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and thereby the maintenance of the authority of the United Nations."

In a speech last night, Cook said he could not back a war without public support at home or by international agreement. He said he'll be one of the more than 100 Labour deputies expected to vote against the government today.

Antiwar MPs plan to vote for a motion that says the case for war has not yet been established. Observers say the revolt could surpass last month's rebellion, when 122 Labour MPs voted for a similar motion.

But it's not all been bad news for Blair.

He got a boost today when Clare Short, the international development secretary, said she'd stay on in the cabinet. It was a reversal for Short, who just days ago had threatened to resign if Britain went to war without a second UN resolution on Iraq.

And two opinion polls in recent days show that public opinion appears to be shifting towards the government's position.

An ICM poll in "The Guardian" today shows that opposition to a war, while still in the majority, is down, and that support is up. The poll also shows a rise in Blair's personal rating.

Analyst Peter Kellner is chairman of YouGov, another polling agency that found similar results in a survey released over the weekend. "There's been something like a 7, 8, 9 percent shift in favor of military action over the last week to month. In the buildup to [war], there's been quite a marked shift. It still leaves a majority concerned, not yet supporting military action, but the gap between the two figures is much closer than it was. And the sense that Tony Blair is doing the right thing -- again it's not a majority but it's a higher number than it was a few weeks ago. I think public opinion is on the turn," Kellner said.

Kellner said this will accelerate once the fighting starts, and British public opinion rallies behind the 45,000 or so British troops deployed in the Persian Gulf.

Blair is still likely to win today's vote thanks to support from the opposition Conservatives. But a big rebellion could still be damaging, especially if a majority of rank-and-file MPs -- as opposed to those in government positions -- revolt.

Kellner says up to 60 Labour MPs are waiting to see how Blair responds to their particular concerns in today's debate before deciding which way to vote. "One of the government's backbench critics, Joan Ruddock, asked last night if the government would give assurance that it would not use cluster bombs or depleted-uranium shells. Jack Straw, the foreign minister who was answering, ducked the question. If Tony Blair gets up today and says 'We will not use depleted-uranium shells. We will not use cluster bombs,' then I think more MPs will vote with the government. If he's asked this and gives no assurance, the rebellion will be larger," Kellner said.

Our correspondent in northern Kuwait reports today that British troops have been using depleted-uranium ammunition during training exercises. Such ammunition is able to more easily penetrate the heavy armor of tanks and other vehicles but is considered hazardous by some experts due to the possible effects of lingering radiation.