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Iraq Likely to Overshadow British Labor Party Conference - 2004-09-26

Britain's involvement in Iraq is likely to overshadow the annual conference of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party, despite the British leader's efforts to shift the focus to domestic issues. Mr. Blair defended his decision to send troops to Iraq in an interview with British television before the party conference opened Sunday in Brighton, England.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's ratings have slipped since the war in Iraq, amid questions of Britain's justification for going to war and continuing violence. And, there have been repeated calls for Mr. Blair to offer an apology at this week's Labor Party conference.

Interviewed on British television, the prime minister conceded that some of the intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons programs was wrong, but in his view, toppling Saddam was still the right thing to do.

"The information, some of it, the intelligence upon which we founded our case has turned out to be wrong," he said. "What I simply say to people is, that I am perfectly happy to say and should say, look, because I take responsibility for it, then I take responsibility for that wrong information. The difficulty is when people want me to go a step further, as many people do, and say what we actually should have done in March 2003, is to have backed away from the conflict. I do not believe we should have done that."

Earlier this month, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan characterized the invasion of Iraq as "illegal." Mr. Blair told British television Sunday he rejects that conclusion.

"Of course, we do not accept that the actions were illegal, for the reasons that we gave at the time," said Mr. Blair. "I mean, I have not actually studied in detail what Kofi said, but, I think, the important thing now is to recognize that we have got a job to do in rebuilding Iraq, and we have got to get on and do it."

While the Labor delegates gather in Brighton, the newspaper headlines all surround the fate of kidnapped British construction worker Kenneth Bigley, who was abducted along with two American colleagues who have since been killed. Mr. Blair was asked in his television interview if he felt it was currently too dangerous for other British workers to go to Iraq.

"Anyone who goes, goes obviously under very strict conditions for their own security, and that is something that their own companies look after, and also, we give advice on," said Tony Blair. "It is important, of course, that the reconstruction work in Iraq goes on, because what is happening in Iraq at the moment is very clear.

"There are aid workers, construction workers, non-governmental organizations, the presence of the troops there trying to help Iraqis make their country better, to help them make it a democracy, and the purpose of these terrorists is to stop them," he added.

Amid continuing concerns about Iraq, two new polls show the degree to which public support for Mr. Blair's Labor Party is draining away.

The Independent on Sunday and the News of the World newspapers both reflect that trend, with support for the opposition Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives posting strong gains ahead of elections expected in May.