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Blair Rejects Appeals to Distance Himself from Bush on Iraq Issue - 2004-05-14


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has rejected appeals from the left wing of his Labor party that he put some political distance between himself and President Bush over the Iraq issue.

In an interview published Friday, Mr. Blair made it clear he intends to stay the course in Iraq, and lead his party into a general election expected in about a year.

Mr. Blair told the anti-war newspaper, The Independent, that he rejects suggestions to back off from his support of President Bush's Iraq policy, in light of the scandal over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners.

He said it would be wrong, if, "at the time of maximum difficulty, you start messing around with your main ally."

Mr. Blair also dismissed as "froth" recent media speculation that the Labor party might replace him with his treasury chief, Gordon Brown, ahead of next year's general election.

A recent Times newspaper poll found voter support for Labor at a 17-year low of just 32 percent, amid widespread disillusionment in Britain with the Iraq war.

In another development, two Britons who are now free after being held for two years by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, say they suffered abuse similar to what has been exposed in Iraq.

The men, Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, publicized their case Friday by releasing a letter they sent to President Bush claiming they were tortured.

Their lawyer, Barbara Olshansky of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, spoke to British radio.

"They were very clear that they were shackled hands to waist to feet for hours on end and made to stand in stress positions when being questioned by the military interrogators," she said. "They were subjected to threatening dogs, freezing cold temperatures, being made to stand naked, the same kind of humiliation and stress techniques that were used in Iraq."

The Britons were detained as illegal combatants in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taleban regime and fight the al-Qaida terrorist network, following the 2001 attacks on the United States.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says Guantanamo prisoners are not covered under the Geneva Conventions that regulate prisoner-of-war treatment. However, he says President Bush ordered that they be treated humanely and in a way consistent with Geneva principles. He says Defense Department lawyers approved interrogation procedures.

"The lawyers cleared what was issued down through the system," said secretary Rumsfeld. "What we can't know at any given moment of every day is to whether each person is executing them consistent with what was approved by the lawyers down through the system."

Mr. Rumsfeld discussed the issue on his flight to Iraq Thursday for a firsthand look at the Abu Ghraib prison, where the alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners occurred.

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