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British Parliament Spars Over War Readiness - 2003-01-08

There has been a sharp debate in the British parliament about whether British forces are prepared for a potential war with Iraq. Prime Minister Tony Blair had a verbal sparring match over the issue with his chief legislative opponent, Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith.

The clash came during prime minister's question time, the weekly session in parliament where Mr. Blair must defend his government's policies against the opposition.

Mr. Duncan Smith wanted to know why the Blair cabinet appears to be divided over the prospect of a war to disarm the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

The mixed signals have come from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who says the odds are 60-40 against a war with Iraq, while the Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon has announced a British military buildup in the Persian Gulf region to put more pressure on Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Duncan Smith accused the Blair government of being ill-prepared to send British forces into potential conflict. "You cannot half-prepare for war," he said. "So not for the first time, this government is sending different messages to different audiences and cabinet ministers are now in open disagreement. So I ask the prime minister, how can he convince the British people that war may be necessary if he can't convince his own cabinet?"

The question appeared to anger Mr. Blair, who tried to play down any split in his cabinet. The prime minister said Britain is ready for war, and that should be obvious to Mr. Duncan Smith. "We have made every preparation that we should make," Mr. Blair said. "And it is completely wrong to say that British troops are half-prepared for any action. That is nonsense. However, whether we have conflict or not depends on the circumstances I have set out. There is a U.N. resolution. Saddam must abide by that U.N. resolution. If he does not abide, he will be disarmed by force. That is the position of the government. It is absolutely clear, I would have thought, even to him [Duncan Smith]."

It was the sharpest clash yet between the leading British politicians over the showdown with Iraq. There was no sign of a fundamental disagreement between the leaders over the need to confront Saddam Hussein. Rather, the debate focused on whether the Blair government is presenting a united front in dealing with the crisis.

The debate also comes against the backdrop of growing fears of an Islamic terrorist attack against Britain in retaliation for its strong support of the United States in confronting Iraq and global terrorism.

British police continue to question six North African men arrested this week by the anti-terrorist squad, which found traces of the deadly toxin ricin in a north London apartment the men occupied.