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Blair Talks Tough but Prepares for Terror Law Compromise

While Tony Blair insists the police need new powers to hold terrorism suspects for up to 90 days without charge, he is facing a looming legislative defeat and he might have to settle for a shorter detention period. Tom Rivers says the prime minister also talked about and Iraq and Iran in his wide-ranging monthly news conference.

Currently, terrorist suspects can be held for 14 days in Britain. After that time, they must be either charged or released.

Police authorities have requested from Tony Blair, a change in the current law that would allow them much more time to question those in detention. And the prime minister accepts their argument.

"I believe they have put forward a compelling case making it crystal clear that the need for a maximum of 90 days to hold suspects prior to charge is necessary. Why? To track complex trails of evidence through highly coded computer records," he explained. "To piece together terrorist networks spanning continents, languages, dialects. To break through the cover provided by false identities and to secure and analyze sites requiring often the most extensive forensic examination."

But the issue has sparked an intense debate pitting on the one hand, toughened security powers against long-held civil liberties. Mr. Blair sees it this way.

"Of course their liberties are important but so are the liberties of the people who may be victims of a terrorist attack. What about their most basic civil liberty? The right to life," he asked.

Most opposition politicians and some in his ruling Labor Party do not agree. That means, as the prime minister concedes, he does not have enough votes to push the measure through. During the next few days, the most likely outcome will be a compromise that would extend the current number of custody days, but short of the 90 Mr. Blair wants.

The British leader was also asked about the charge being levied by his former ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer. In excerpts from his new book published in the Guardian newspaper, Mr. Meyer says Tony Blair repeatedly failed to use his influence over President Bush to slow down the push to war in Iraq.

At the news conference, the prime minister answered this way.

"I have nothing to say at all. I mean except to say, as I did on a previous occasion of someone's book, that I am not getting into book promotion myself," said Mr. Blair.

The topic of Iran also came up and Mr. Blair again claimed that Tehran is standing in the way of progress in the region.

"We know Iran supports terrorism around the Middle East and it should stop it. Until it stops it, there will be a deep dismay about the Iranian regime right around the world, and they have just got to accept that, and what they do with this terrorism is that they prevent political progress being made whether it is in the Middle East or elsewhere," noted Mr. Blair.

Last week, the British leader sent out the mixed message that while military action against Iran is not being considered, the international community would not, as he said, stand for continued breaches of Tehran's obligations.