LONDON, March 17 (UPI) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair was hit Monday by the first Cabinet resignation over his pro-war stance on Iraq -- Robin Cook stepped down as the government's leader in the House of Commons, and was given an unprecedented standing ovation by fellow legislators for doing so.
Cook resigned minutes before an emergency Cabinet meeting at the prime minister's Downing Street office. His decision centered on his doubts about the legality of launching any war against Iraq without approval by a U.N. resolution.
"The reality," he told a packed Commons Monday evening, "is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner -- not NATO, not the European Union, and now not the Security Council."
"Robin Cook met the prime minister before Cabinet and has resigned from the government," a spokesman for Blair said. The ex-leader of the house quickly left Downing Street for the Commons, where he spoke following a statement on Iraq by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
Cook, himself a one-time foreign minister in Blair's first administration and Straw's predecessor, has made clear for weeks his reservations about going to war alongside the United States against Iraq, particularly without specific approval from the U.N. Security Council.
"The (United States) can afford to go it alone," he said, "but Britain is not a superpower. Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action, but by multilateral agreement and a world order ... governed by rules."
The United States, Britain and Spain on Monday called off their efforts to secure Security Council approval, a move that appeared to all but end diplomatic efforts to avoid conflict and to open the way for war, possibly this week.
"Only a year ago we and the United States were part of a coalition against terrorism which was wider and more diverse than I would ever imagine would be possible," Cook told parliament, adding, to murmurs of approval, "History will be astonished at the diplomatic miscalculations that led so quickly to the disintegration of that powerful coalition."
Cook's resignation might not be the last from Blair's Cabinet over the Iraq crisis. Clare Short, Blair's secretary for international development, described the prime minister's pro-war stance as "deeply reckless" recently and threatened to quit if Britain went to war without a new U.N. resolution.
However, Short attended the emergency Cabinet session that Cook chose to avoid by quitting, and government sources said Blair wanted to persuade her to stay on to spearhead the humanitarian aid effort that inevitably will follow a war in Iraq.
Cook said he was troubled -- as Short has often said she is -- by the prospect of large-scale deaths of innocent Iraqis in any war. "The U.S. warning of a bombing campaign that will 'shock and awe'," he said, "makes it likely that (civilian) casualties will be numbered at least in the thousands."
Political sources said Blair summoned the Cabinet members to brief them on the results of Sunday's emergency summit in the Azores on the Iraq crisis and advise them of what to expect when President George W. Bush addressed the United States on Monday night.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said ahead of Bush's address that Bush would deliver an ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to get out of Iraq or war would begin.
Cook's resignation served to highlight Blair's growing problems over Iraq. More than 120 members of Parliament from Blair's own ruling Labor Party have rebelled against him, and that number was expected to grow in a new debate over the crisis expected in Parliament this week, possibly Tuesday.
Political sources said some members of Parliament intend to submit an amendment stating their conviction that war against Iraq cannot be justified without a new U.N. resolution.
However, Blair would be expected to safely maneuver around such a protest because the main opposition Conservative Party has solidly endorsed his pro-war stand and has signaled it will support Blair in any parliamentary vote on the issue.