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Iraq: British Troop Deaths Turn Up Heat On Blair

The shooting deaths of six British soldiers near Basra yesterday is upping the pressure on the British government over its backing for the Iraq war and the occupation of the country. The attack comes as one of Prime Minister Tony Blair's closest aides is to give evidence today to a parliamentary committee investigating whether the government exaggerated the weapons threat posed by Iraq in order to justify the war.

Prague, 25 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The news that six British soldiers had been killed yesterday in southern Iraq stunned Britain.

It was the country's biggest single loss of life from hostile fire since the war began. And it shattered the popular image of the British operation in southern Iraq.

British soldiers, it was thought, enjoyed more trust among locals than the Americans. Their apparently softer approach -- more informal dress, soft hats instead of helmets -- contrasted with the Americans in their full combat gear.

Officials stress that the attack appears to have been an isolated incident, but that the circumstances are still unclear. Eight other British troops were wounded in later attacks on a British patrol and a helicopter.

The incidents prompted a review of the troops' security arrangements, and British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said more troops may be necessary.

"There is a review of the security situation on the ground being conducted. My absolute priority is the safety and security of our forces, and if there is a request made by commanding officers on the ground, then certainly we have further troops available should that be necessary," Hoon said.

It's also upped the pressure on the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is already under fire over the coalition's inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Members of parliament (MPs) raised a number of queries last night and again today during the weekly prime minister's question time in the House of Commons: How long are British troops likely to have to stay in Iraq? Is there an exit strategy? Isn't it true the British troops are resented as occupiers, not welcomed as liberators?

Blair made no commitment on the timing of any withdrawal, and said yesterday's attacks should make Britain even more committed to making Iraq safe.

"Even at this moment in time, it is particularly important that we make sure that we redouble our efforts to bring stability to that country because that is the surest way of bringing stability to the rest of the world," Blair said.

The attacks come at a tricky time. A parliamentary inquiry is under way into whether the British government exaggerated the weapons threat posed by Iraq in an effort to justify the war.

Yesterday, it heard evidence from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He said one of the government's reports on the Iraqi threat had been an "embarrassment," since much of it was lifted from a student's thesis on the Internet.

Today, it's the turn of the man who commissioned that dossier -- Blair's close aide Alastair Campbell -- to testify.

Today, Blair stood by the report: "The actual part of that dossier [on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction] was, of course, entirely accurate. The mistake in not attributing it was accepted at the time and I would simply point out that both in respect of that and the first dossier, there is not a single fact in it that is actually disputed."

Professor Anthony King of Essex University says the success of the Iraq war is unraveling for Blair. "The war was a great success. The peace -- in so far as there is a peace -- is not proving successful at all. And I think it's fair to say that at all levels in Britain -- among the media, amongst ordinary people, amongst Labour Party members, amongst Labour MPs, even I suspect among members of his own cabinet -- people are wondering what on earth is going on."

King says he doesn't expect much pressure for the British troops to pull out, as that would seem an abnegation of responsibility. But he believes Blair, for the first time, is in serious political trouble. "He reshuffled the members of this government a few days ago. That was not at all well-handled. Even some members of the cabinet have conceded that, and that's off the back of the difficulties over Iraq and it's also off the back of the government's inability really to decide in the long term what it's going to do about the euro. And all of these things coming together, I think, are causing Tony Blair to look less like [a] Teflon man than he used to."