Analysis: Blair gambles big on Iraq

By PETER ALMOND   |   Jan. 21, 2003 at 3:35 PM
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LONDON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- By committing a quarter of Britain's entire army to confront Iraq in the next few weeks, Prime Minister Tony Blair appears today to be taking an immense political gamble.

The immediate deployment of some 26,000 troops is considerably more than the largest number expected, and will cost the British taxpayer at least $8 billion. It comes at a time when anti-terrorist action and strikes across the nation by Britain's firefighters for better pay and conditions are stretching military resources to the limit, and when public opinion is running massively and increasingly against war with Iraq.

Labor's Blair is also being seen as too close to President Bush, to the extent that he is handing any leadership credibility of Europe to French President Jacques Chirac, and also of overriding rising domestic concerns such as asylum seekers, social welfare, transport and rapidly rising college tuition fees.

Reverse comparisons are being made to the 1956 Suez War, arguably Britain's last imperial foray until it was stopped by American objections. A war which costs hundreds or thousands of lives -- particularly British ones -- and is likely to be messy for months or years afterwards is considered likely to destroy Blair's political career even with weak opposition to him in Parliament.

Blair, however, appears to be calculating that such huge potential negative costs will demonstrate both to Bush and to Saddam Hussein just how much he is determined not to fail in getting Iraq to disarm its suspected weapons of mass destruction. And it comes as both he and other top British officials hint of splits inside Saddam's administration that could widen as more military pressure is applied.

Monday's relatively massive British troop commitment almost certainly guarantees that the Bush administration -- and the United Nations -- have to listen closely to Blair when he argues that no military action against Iraq be taken without a second U.N. Security Council resolution.

He stopped short of saying he would not support unilateral U.S. or U.K.-US action if there was no such U.N. vote when he was interrogated by senior members of Parliament Tuesday, saying only that such a vote was "highly desirable." But he stressed that when the crunch came there would be no "unreasonable vetoes" from such Security Council members as France, China or Germany.

"If there was such a veto then it would be wrong (for the United Nation) to say to Saddam 'OK you can carry on as you were,'" he told the Commons Liaison Committee. "We must not give a signal to Saddam that there is a way out of this."

The U.N.'s determination that its resolutions must not be flouted or ignored signals to North Korea, he said, that its withdrawal from the nuclear arms proliferation treaty is unacceptable.

Blair is hampered in explaining any advantages of a post-Saddam Iraq to the public because, unlike Bush, his policy is not regime change but disarmament.

But while he predicated today that the British public would back a war against Iraq if there were no other means of disarming Saddam, that was not at all clear from new public opinion polls. An ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper showed that 81 percent would not support military action without a second resolution from the United Nations, and 47 percent of voters - 10 percent more than last October -- would not support a war at all. Only 30 percent would support such a conflict.

Labor voters oppose military action by 43 percent to 38 percent, and Conservative voters are also opposed, by 41 percent to 38 percent. Liberal Democrats, whose leader Charles Kennedy has emerged as a major anti-war critic, split 62 percent against and only 19 percent in favor of military action.

A second poll released Tuesday by the Mori Social Research Institute confirmed the trend, with 77 percent opposing military action without a second U.N. vote and 39 percent opposed even with U.N. support -- up 10 percent since September.

Perhaps more worryingly for Blair, almost two-thirds (62 percent) of those polled said they disapproved of the way he was handling the crisis -- compared to 47 percent in a similar Mori survey in October last year. A further 68 percent disapproved of Bush's performance on the issue, an increase of 9 percent over last September.

Most newspaper editorials were Tuesday quiet on the issue, perhaps because Monday's deployment announcement came so late in the day, perhaps because they were already full of comments on Monday's anti-terrorist police raid on a London mosque in which seven people were arrested and weapons allegedly found.

There is rising anxiety about the activities of thousands of barely tracked asylum seekers in the country following discovering of deadly ricin in London last week and the killing of a police officer by an Algerian asylum seeker in a connected Manchester raid at the weekend. War with Iraq is seen as likely to increase the prospect of major terrorism in Britain.

The tabloid Daily Mirror, however, declared its passionate opposition to an Iraq war. It's Tuesday front page is designed as a cut-out for its 2.1 million traditional Labor-supporting readers to send back declaring "NO WAR" and "'Mr Blair, I hereby register my opposition to any war with Iraq not justified by unequivocal U.N. evidence." Under a headline declaring a common perception throughout Europe - "We're Going for Oil" -- the newspaper said that "secret invasion plans" with the United States called for British troops to seize oil wells in Iraq.

The British military commitment, however, appears less suited to scatter troops all over the desert than it is to seize key targets with light forces and engage any interfering Republican Guard tank units with armor and air strikes.

While 120 Challenger II tanks and 32 AS90 artillery guns form the main armored strength of 7 Armored Brigade (The 'Desert Rats' of World War II El Alamein fame), the tanks of 4 Armored Brigade are not involved as they were in the 1991 Gulf War, but many more helicopter borne troops are.

The bulk of the forces are expected to go to Kuwait, where troops of 102 Logistics Brigade are already arriving to begin building camps for them in the desert. Unlike the Americans, the British did not preposition much equipment in Kuwait after Operation Desert Storm, and must bring everything back with them in a huge sea and airlift expected to involve more than 60 chartered ships over the next few weeks.

The troops are expected to be joined in the Gulf by some 4,000 Royal Marines and light artillery support from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the helicopter carrier Ocean and 13 other Royal Navy ships currently on their way to the Eastern Mediterranean.

The other major British Army combat unit is 16 Air Assault Brigade, whose helicopter-borne three Parachute regiments and one infantry regiment are backed by light guns and Lynx Tow-missile firing attack helicopters. They are expected to work alongside the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, probably in northern Iraq once basing arrangements have been worked out with the Turkish government.

Operation Telic, as the deployment is called, will be directed by the Germany-based 1st (UK) Armored Division, led by Maj. Gen. Robin Brims. It will stretch the British armed forces -- already involved in operations from Northern Ireland to Kosovo, Bosnia, to Kuwait and beyond -- to its limit.

Significantly, the Paras of 16 Air Assault Div, who had been on national fire fighting duties until they were told to train for desert battle, were back on fire watch Tuesday as the first of a fresh series of strikes got under way. They will drop their fire hoses for rifles again tomorrow when they prepare to depart for the Middle East.

But with the strikes now likely to go on intermittently for months the 19,500 troops assigned to cover for the fire fighters may leave Britain's barracks horribly empty.

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