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Despite protests, Britain's Blair steadfastly backs Bush on Iraq

LONDON—He just saw the largest antiwar demonstration in Britain's history. His popularity polls have dropped again. Press attacks against him are unrelenting. Talk of his political demise is routine.

Still, Prime Minister Tony Blair remains unshakable in siding with President Bush's demand for military action against Iraq sooner rather than later.

If some 750,000 demonstrators who thronged London's streets Saturday in favor of peace—joining millions of others across Europe—hoped they might have turned the head of the prime minister, they've been disappointed.

At a news briefing Tuesday at No. 10 Downing Street, the residence of Britain's prime ministers, Blair repeated his stance that after 12 years, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has had more than enough time to disarm. And last Saturday, even as peace lovers were packing London's Piccadilly Circus, Blair declared to a conference of his Labor Party in Scotland that "ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity. It is leaving him there that is in truth inhumane."

The solid Bush-Blair alliance is causing increasing consternation in Britain. The reasons are many, starting with the fact that the conservative Bush is widely disliked by the more left-leaning Britons who put Blair in office six years ago.

Contempt here for the Bush administration is so heavy that Blair complained sternly Tuesday that "some of the rhetoric I hear used about America is actually more savage than some of the rhetoric you hear used about Saddam and the Iraqi regime."

Brits also are confused and upset with their own leader. How could a Laborite whose party ostensibly cares most about human issues be focused on war? How could the former best political friend of Bill Clinton be so close to a president on the opposite side?

"If Bush is masculine and Clinton feminine, what is Tony Blair?" wondered a headline in the Daily Telegraph.

None of the answers is clear, but even those most opposed to war concede that Blair seems sincere about the need to oust Saddam.

"I think he sincerely does believe that," said Bob Roberts, a political correspondent for the tabloid newspaper Daily Mirror, which has had extremely strong antiwar views. "There is no great strategic or political reason for doing so ... so he has shrugged off the polls, his own popularity, and forged ahead in what is a very lonely furrow."

Some think Blair is emboldened by the success of the NATO bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo conflict, an action that ultimately brought down Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Blair was Europe's hawk on that action, too.

And a sympathetic view of Blair now is that—rather than being warlike—he is acting as a great bridge-builder, straddling the gap between war-reluctant Europe and war-eager Bush, pushing Bush toward the need for a second U.N. resolution condoning war while pushing U.N. Security Council members toward voting for one.

But European nations remained divided on another resolution, and Bush doesn't seem deeply impressed with Blair's push for one.

Blair declared Tuesday that "I have always said I want to resolve this through the U.N. I want a second resolution if we go to military action, and I still think there is a lot of debate to go on before we get to the point of decision there in the United Nations."

Hours later, Bush declared at the White House that "we don't need a second resolution. It's clear this guy (Saddam) could even care less about the first resolution. ... But we want to work with our friends and allies to see if we can get a second resolution."

Bush called Blair "a courageous leader, and I'm proud to call him friend."

For many in Great Britain, that's the worst thing Bush could say about their prime minister.

Observed political writer John Kampfner, whose book "Blair's Wars" is due out next fall: "Such is the absolutely unprecedented unpopularity of Bush in the U.K., there is nothing Blair can do with Bush that will reflect well on Blair."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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