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Blair wins support of House of Commons as split widens in Labor Party

LONDON—Hour after hour Wednesday, members of Britain's 659-seat House of Commons passionately debated war with Iraq, flipping arguments back and forth.

President Bush was a trustworthy leader working patiently through the United Nations. No, Bush had decided to go to war months ago, no matter what other nations thought.

War would "wreak substantial havoc and destruction on Iraq." But delaying war would not bring peace, it would only postpone "conflict waiting in the wings."

It lasted six hours, and at the end of the day Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had won the debate.

He also lost.

Although a majority of members of Parliament voted for a Blair motion to give Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein a "final opportunity" to disarm, 122 of Blair's 410 Labor Party MPs voted for an anti-war amendment—giving the prime minister the biggest rebellion in his six years in office.

That's as if one-quarter of the Republicans in Congress opposed Bush on Iraq—an eye-opening political setback, but here it meant little in immediate practical terms.

Lacking a U.S.-style War Powers Act, the House of Commons—Parliament's only elected governing body—has no say in the prime minister's decisions on war. And there was no indication Wednesday that Blair was wavering even slightly in his backing of Bush on Iraq or on Britain's commitment to send thousands of troops into battle if war comes.

Still, the rebellion revealed how seriously the war issue has split Britain's ruling Labor Party. For now, no single rebel is emerging as a leading rival to Blair; Wednesday's dissenters were back-benchers, not party leaders. Even so, the depth of their anti-war convictions conveyed the seriousness of their breach with Blair.

As Shakespeare's "Love's Labor Lost" is playing at London's National Theater, Blair is losing Labor's love in Parliament because of his partnership with Bush in a potential war that a majority of the British public opposes.

If the war goes badly, Blair's leadership could be on the line, political observers agree, although it is unlikely that his Labor Party—with its vast majority—would lose power.

It is worth noting, too, that many of Wednesday's debate comments were directed not at Blair but at Bush.

Labor MP George Galloway, an outspoken anti-war activist, said fellow MPs "know in their hearts that this born-again, right-wing, Bible-belted fundamental Republican administration in the United States wants war."

Another member called Texas "the execution chamber of the world" in a reference to its frequent use of the death penalty. That prompted David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader from Belfast and a Blair supporter, to rise up and demand an end to the "anti-Americanism" ringing through the chamber.

Still, the most hostile words of the day were directed at Saddam Hussein—both by those supporting Blair and those opposing war. The Iraqi leader was called "revolting," "vile," "murderous" and "despicable."

Even so, said Labor MP Chris Smith, a former cabinet member under Blair, the shallowest argument is one made by Bush and Blair defenders when they contend that "those urging caution are failing to be strong and appeasing a tyrant. . . . Strength does not lie simply in military might. . . . It lies in having an honorable case" for war.


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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tony Blair