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Blair assailed for resolute support of U.S. in Iraq conflict

LONDON—British Prime Minister Tony Blair got the supreme insult this week when he faced a group of antiwar women on television. They gave him the "slow hand clap"—an infuriatingly slow, deliberate clapping that shows extreme unhappiness with a leader.

It was just one of many bad moments in a tough week for President Bush's closest ally.

Blair's so-far unflagging determination to back the United States in a military action against Iraq is causing not only public unhappiness but also deep fissures within his own Labor Party government.

If he joins the United States in an Iraq war without a U.N. resolution backing it, Blair faces widespread revolt in his party's ranks. If he stands by the United States, as expected, a war that goes badly could cost him his job.

U.S. efforts to push through a U.N. resolution, and any show of flexibility on the language, largely reflect U.S. efforts to protect Blair's political backside.

On Tuesday, Blair and his country were tensely awaiting the outcome of negotiations for a newly tailored resolution being debated by U.N. Security Council members.

Behind the scenes, the British government is pushing a re-engineered resolution that would give Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein a series of disarmament "tests" to pass within a fairly tight deadline to avoid war.

The U.K. ambassador to the U.N., Sir Jeremy Greenstock, indicated that the March 17 deadline in an earlier resolution proposed by the United States, Britain and Spain might slip. But "don't look beyond March," Greenstock said on CNN.

Those British efforts are seen as an all-out, perhaps last-ditch effort by the British government to win passage of the second resolution Blair desperately needs to shore up his political support. President Bush has said the United States doesn't need the U.N. to go to war; but Blair needs the U.N. to put out the flames of revolt at home.

Several members of Parliament who serve in his government are threatening to quit without a new resolution. And on Sunday one of Blair's cabinet members—International Development Secretary Claire Short—called her leader "extraordinarily reckless" for appearing ready to go to war without U.N. backing.

She too threatened to resign without a second resolution, and press reports speculate that without it, as many as 200 Labor MPs—about half of the Labor seats in Parliament—might take a symbolic anti-war vote against their prime minister if war is again debated in the House of Commons. Embarrassingly, Blair is supported most strongly on the issue by his political adversary—the Conservative Party, which supports the war effort.

Worse for Blair is new talk—among left-wing Labor activists and union leaders—of calls for an emergency meeting of the Labor Party's executive board to vote on Blair's continued leadership of his party (which automatically gives him the prime minister's job).

Despite the increasingly loud rumbling, it still appeared unlikely that his disgruntled colleagues would remove Blair from office before a war began. If he stands by the U.S. during military action, with or without U.N. backing, it is the war itself that will determine Blair's fate.

"If the war is short and successful, Mr. Blair will emerge strengthened If the war goes wrong, Mr. Blair might be prevailed upon to stand down by senior Labor figures if it became evident that he had lost the confidence of his party," wrote political editor George Jones of the Daily Telegraph, a conservative paper that is no friend of Blair's.

Even a costly war with high Iraqi civilian and British military casualties might not lead to the immediate defeat of Prime Minister Blair, if only because the British public is likely to stand by its government while a conflict rages.

"People are patriotic, and once troops go in, of course they will be," said Phil Shiner of the Public Interest Lawyers group, which unsuccessfully attempted to take Blair to court for backing an "illegal" war. "But once it's all over and people can assess the implications there will be judgment day."


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

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

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on KRT Direct (from KRT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Tony Blair