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Blair Fights for Political Life in House Vote

Britain's prime minister faces a difficult political battle on Tuesday as British parliamentarians vote on a motion authorizing an invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, the number of resignations climbs to three.

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Trying to sway parliament: British Prime Minister Tony Blair

The word circulating around Washington recently was that the Bush administration was set on achieving regime change in Iraq and not Britain, home of the United States' staunchest ally in the confrontation with Saddam Hussein.

Only half a joke, such comments began circulating because British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under increasingly heavy pressure at home for his support of President George W. Bush. On Tuesday, Blair faced new salvos of the political fire that had people in Washington wondering about his future in office. The prime minister went before the House of Commons in the afternoon in his attempt to rally his parliamentary forces before the lawmakers vote on a resolution authorizing the use of British troops in the pending invasion of Iraq.

Blair appeared resolute and animated before the packed parliament in a debate that was by far the most important of his premiership.

"Who will celebrate and who will weep if we pull our troops back now?" he said as he warned that retreat would send a dangerous message to other "tyrants", while the Iraqi people would be left in "pitiless terror". "I will not be party to such a course. This is not the time to falter. This is the time for this House to give a lead, to show we will stand up for what we know to be right."

It was an impassioned plea to parliament as support for his effort continued to slip.

  • Two senior cabinet ministers have quit the British government.
  • A midlevel cabinet minister has also resigned.
  • And observers said up to 150 members of parliament from Blair's own Labour Party could vote against the government when the vote is taken late Tuesday. If the opposition within in his party continues to build and 165 Labour parliamentarians vote against Blair's plan, the prime minister will have to rely on votes from the opposition Conservative party.

    Amid the gloom, Blair was able to win one small victory. Clare Short, Britain's international development secretary, changed her mind about possibly resigning if the prime minister went to war without U.N. backing. In a statement, she said that, given the current circumstances, she would vote with the government.

    Tuesday's debate was called after the United States, Britain and Spain withdrew their second resolution in the U.N. Security Council on Sunday and Bush gave Saddam 48 hours to leave Iraq on Monday evening.

    In his address to the Parliament, Blair urged parliamentarians to "show that we will stand up for what we know to be right ... that we will confront the tyrants and terrorists who put our lives at risk."

    Three U.K. cabinet ministers resign

    Robin Cook relieved

    Robin Cook

    The three resignations began on Monday with Robin Cook (photo), the leader of the House of Commons. Junior Health Minister Lord Philip Hunt and John Denham, a mid-ranking British interior minister, followed on Tuesday.

    In his resignation letter, former Foreign Secretary Cook wrote: "In principle, I believe it is wrong to embark on military action without broad international support."

    He said he believed British "interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules."

    Cook received a standing ovation for the resignation speech he gave to a packed House of Commons.

    The next morning, Hunt said in an interview on BBC Radio 4 that he had "decided to resign from the government today because I don’t support the pre-emptive action which is going to be taken without broad international support or indeed the support of the British people."

    A handful of lower-level Labour Party officials also tendered their resignations on Tuesday.

    Blair may have to rely on opposition votes

    The British parliamentarians are considering a motion that states that Iraq has not complied fully with weapons inspectors and is in material breach of U.N. Resolution 1441, the latest resolution on the disarmament of Iraq. Therefore, the motion continues, the British government should "use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction."

    Blair opponents within his own party said on Tuesday morning that they expected 150 Labour parliamentarians to vote against the government. Last month, 122 rebelled against Blair's hawkish stance in an previous Iraq vote.

    However, a total of 165 must go against Blair before he is forced to rely on Conservative Party votes. The Conservatives' leader, Iain Duncan Smith, has already said he will back a war. It would take 245 votes to defeat Blair's motion in the House of Commons.

    On Monday, the British government's top lawyer, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, said war without a second U.N. resolution would not break international law. Previous U.N. resolutions were sufficient to authorize the use of force against Iraq, he said.

    Poll says worst may be over for Blair

    With 45,000 British troops stationed in the Persian Gulf awaiting the order to attack, a new poll showed that public support for a war against Iraq had risen slightly. Disapproval for war fell 8 percentage points to 44 percent, and support rose 9 percentage points to 38 percent.

    The ICM poll, published in the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday, said the Iraq crisis had not affected Labour’s poll rating and suggested that the Blair "might have gone through the worst and his determination to secure a second U.N. resolution, though unsuccessful, has impressed voters."

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