Blair govt shrugs off UK anti-war rebels

By AL WEBB, United Press International   |   Sept. 25, 2002 at 12:05 PM
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LONDON, Sept. 25 (UPI) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his ministers Wednesday shrugged off a revolt in Parliament but failed to heal a rift within the ruling Labor Party over the government's threat to go to war alongside the United States against Iraq.

Blair stifled at least temporarily a rebellion by 56 Labor members of Parliament Tuesday night by insisting that disarming Iraq rather than overthrowing its leader, Saddam Hussein, was Britain's main objective. He also promised to work with the United Nations in dealing with Baghdad.

The seemingly unruffled prime minister secluded himself Wednesday to begin work on his politically vital keynote address to next week's Labor Party conference -- a meeting that promises far fiercer opposition to military action in Iraq than he has yet run into even in Parliament.

Meanwhile, Labor rebels led by hardcore anti-war MPs, unconvinced by the dossier of evidence of Iraq's stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction that Blair outlined in Parliament, launched plans for a peace march and mass rally Saturday in London to try to derail the government's war plans.

Organizers told reporters the London anti-war rally would become "one of the largest of its kind" -- a prospect that left Labor Party leaders fretful, coming as it will on the eve of the party conference in Blackpool, England.

But Blair received an unexpected boost from a monthly ICM poll in the Guardian newspaper, which showed that 65 percent of those surveyed said they would be prepared to back a war against Iraq if the government produced evidence that Saddam had acquired chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

At the same time the poll -- in which a random sample of 1,000 adults aged 18 or above were questioned between last Friday through Sunday -- showed 13 percent believed Saddam's sincerity in offering "unconditional" access to his weapons stockpiles and research facilities by U.N. inspectors.

The Blair government is increasingly playing to the fears of those hesitant about military action. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told British Broadcasting Corp. radio on Wednesday that "the prime minister and I fully understand. Of course, there is anxiety about the idea that we may end up by going to war."

But, he insisted, what London and Washington both want, "what the world wants, is a peaceful resolution to the issue of weapons of mass destruction held by Iraq," Straw said. "We want to see the disarmament of Iraq by getting the weapons inspectors in and then by other action, without military action."

Still, the words may not be enough to head off trouble for Blair and his Cabinet at the Blackpool conference, where party sources say a raft of anti-war measures are being prepared to seek to embarrass the government.

In Parliament, Blair is less troubled by his political opposition -- Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith has already given his party's broad acceptance to the government's tough stance against Baghdad -- than by the anti-war rebels within the Labor ranks.

Blair urged a recalled session of Parliament on Tuesday not to shirk from doing "what is necessary and right." But already, more than 160 MPs have signed a parliamentary motion opposing military against Iraq, and at least 133 of those are Laborites.

According to reports citing government sources, at least three and possibly more members of Blair's Cabinet are poised to resign in protest at any military intervention in Iraq, particularly if it is launched without prior approval and support from the United Nations.

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