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Blair, British Public Opinion Often Divided on Iraq Policy - 2002-12-24


British Prime Minister Tony Blair played a key role in convincing U.S. President George W. Bush to seek United Nations support for his efforts to disarm Iraq. Britain is expected to be America's most reliable military ally if war breaks out with Iraq.

When President Bush spoke on the Iraq crisis at the United Nations on September 12, British government officials were quietly delighted. That's because Prime Minister Blair had been instrumental in convincing the U.S. leader to seek a new U.N. resolution to get weapons inspectors back inside Iraq.

The Bush announcement ended weeks of speculation that the United States was about to go to war against Iraq with virtually no international support, except for Britain.

But with British public opinion sharply divided on Iraq, Mr. Blair knew he would be taking an enormous political risk if there was a war before all diplomatic efforts had been exhausted. He used his influence as America's strongest ally in the war on terrorism to make his case to President Bush, as he explained on British radio.

"I think it's very important we do stand with the U.S., particularly after the 11 of September, and also try to make sure that we act with the United States on as broad a basis as possible and one of the reasons why I wanted to make sure we dealt with Iraq through the United Nations was to try to bring everyone onto the same ground," said Mr. Blair.

The British prime minister emphasized that one of his greatest fears is that terrorists will acquire weapons of mass destruction from a country like Iraq, and he has been sharing his concerns with President Bush since they first met.

"The very first meeting I had with George Bush shortly after his election, I raised the issue of weapons of mass destruction then," recalled Mr. Blair. "That was before September 11, before any of these issues had come to prominence. I have been worried about this for a long time."

Pollsters say Mr. Blair continues to have trouble convincing a large segment of the British public that the threat from Iraq is real. They say his close relationship with President Bush could be a political liability.

"President Bush is an unpopular U.S. president" in Britain, said Patrick Dunlevy, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. "British public opinion does not like strong, right-wing U.S. presidents. British public opinion is critical of U.S. policy since September 11. I think Tony Blair is being seen as too compliant with U.S. policy."

Some of the most outspoken opponents of the Blair policy on Iraq are members of parliament from his own Labor Party. One of them, Jeremy Corbyn, even helped lead an anti-war protest march through London. "I believe an attack on Iraq is outrageous," he said. "It will kill many civilians. It won't bring about an improvement in the lot of ordinary people's lives, but it will deliver a lot of oil to a lot of oil companies."

Some British military analysts say it may be too late for the protesters to stop a war, since British and American jet fighters are already bombing targets in Iraq's northern and southern no-fly zones.

"What the coalition aircraft are going after are command, control, communications, and intelligence sites," said Charles Heyman, who edits a military magazine for the Jane's Information Group. "And they're taking them out bit by bit. I mean [this is] a very, very necessary prelude to a high intensity campaign later down the line."

In the 1991 Gulf War, Britain was the only country to send an armored division to join American forces in driving Iraq out of Kuwait. British military analysts say if Iraq is invaded this time, Mr. Blair will at least want to match that contribution, and carry on his influence with the Americans.

Part of VOA's yearend series

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