Blair Wins Fight to Join U.S.-Led War Against Iraq | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 19.03.2003
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Blair Wins Fight to Join U.S.-Led War Against Iraq

British Prime Minister Tony Blair won his vote in parliament late Tuesday. But he had to put down a revolt within his own Labour ranks to do so.


Pleading for support: Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Tony Blair received his much-needed parliamentary support late Tuesday for British participation in a war against Iraq, but he had to pay a political price in his own Labour Party for the victory.

With the support from the opposition, the House of Commons strongly endorsed the government's decision to use "all means necessary" to strip Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. The decision allows Blair to commit the 40,000 British troops in the Persian Gulf in a war that could begin anytime after the deadline of 2 a.m. Central European Time on Thursday set by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Before Blair could celebrate his victory, he had to put down a revolt in his own party and defeat an amendment that declared that the case for war "has not yet been established."

On the surface, the numbers showed that Blair was able to handily put down the amendment, 396 to 217. But 138 members of his party were among the 217 lawmakers who voted for the measure. It was the biggest show of dissent Blair has faced since coming to power in 1997 and followed a vote last month in which 122 Labour lawmakers rebelled against Blair's hawkish stance.

After the first vote on Tuesday, the House of Commons voted 412 to 149 to approve the government's resolve to disarm Iraq. The opposition Conservatives also backed Blair.

Unity sought after vote

Following the votes, Labour rebels said it was now time to unite behind Blair and support British troops.

Robin Cook relieved

Robin Cook

"I hope that the war will be over quickly," said Robin Cook, a senior Cabinet member who quit Monday over the crisis. "I hope it will be successful, and I hope all our troops, both the American and British, will be coming back."

Blair staked his career on the need to support military action.

"Back away from this confrontation now and future conflicts will be infinitely worse and more devastating in their effects," he said in an impassioned speech to lawmakers, as some 200 anti-war protesters demonstrated outside Parliament.

Blair said far more was at stake than disarming Saddam -- that the fundamental framework of international relations was being re-examined.

"It will determine the way Britain and the world confront the central security threat of the 21st century," he said. "It will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation."

He made the impassioned plea to parliament in an effort to shore up his slipping support within his party. As a result of these protests, two senior cabinet ministers have quit the British government, and a midlevel cabinet minister has resigned as well.

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.

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.

Three U.K. cabinet ministers resign

The resignations began on Monday with 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.

Motion questions Iraqi compliance

The British parliamentarians were considering a motion that stated that Iraq had 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 continued, the British government should "use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction."

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.

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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