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Monday, 19 February, 2001, 13:48 GMT
Blair defiant over Iraqi air strikes
Protesters in Whitehall
Protests against the bombing have spread to London
The government has robustly defended the joint air strikes launched with America against Iraqi targets.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing continued pressure at home and abroad over the attacks but Downing Street said on Monday that Britain made no apology for carrying out the action.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Paddy Ashdown has warned the attack could strengthen Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as he attempts to get United Nations sanctions lifted.

Whether or not it's wise remains to be seen but it's probably necessary

Sir Paddy Ashdown on Friday's attack
Other critics - from within Mr Blair's own party as well as ex-UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter - have gone further and questioned the legality of the air strikes.

But Downing Street has hit back, saying the raid was necessary because Iraq had increased its attacks on American and British aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone.

Describing the bombing strike as a "proportionate response", the prime minister's spokesman said: "We make no apology for carrying out this action."

He said coalition planes had been attacked by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire 21 times last month, more than in the whole of last year.

With the House of Commons not sitting this week, Foreign Office minister Lady Symons was due to make a statement in the Lords on Monday afternoon about the air strikes.

Eight British and 16 American aircraft using long-range precision weapons were involved in the strikes on anti-aircraft sites near Baghdad on Friday. All returned safely.

Click here to see a map of the area

The Iraqis say two civilians were killed, and 20 others were injured, some seriously, in the bombings.

International backing for the raids has been conspicuously absent, with Russia and China among the first to criticise them followed by others including British allies Turkey and France.

Over the weekend thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad in well-orchestrated protests.

Attack 'probably necessary'

Sir Paddy Ashdown told the BBC on Monday that the raids did not breach international law because, as long as the US and Britain were carrying out duties enforcing UN resolutions, they were entitled to protect their air crews.

But he went on: "I think in many ways what Saddam Hussein has done is provoke the West to act in defence of the lives of its pilots in a way which politically may well help him to get the sanctions lifted.

"That's why I say, 'Is it wise? That remains to be seen' but it probably was necessary while we continue with the policy that we have."

Paddy Ashdown
Sir Paddy Ashdown said raids had crossed a "small Rubicon"
He warned that by hitting command and control centres - rather than just responding when missiles were fired at their aircraft - America and Britain had crossed "one small Rubicon".

In contrast Mr Ritter, who resigned as head of the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq in 1998, had strong doubts about the legality of the no-fly zones and last Friday's air strikes.

They were "premature, totally ineffective, and will only continue to further strengthen Saddam Hussein's hand", he told the BBC.

Maverick Labour MP George Galloway, a strong critic of the British government's policy on Iraq for some time, visited Baghdad after the raids and described the atmosphere there as the "ugliest" he had seen it in recent years.

He compared the bombing to "Hitler marching into Czechoslovakia" and called the allied governments "reckless, lawless and murderous".

And the veteran Labour MP, Tony Benn, said the attack could not be justified in international law. He has demanded an immediate recall of the Commons, currently on its half-term break.

Meeting of Revolutionary Command Council and Baath Party leadership
Saddam Hussein chaired a meeting of advisors after the air strikes

Defending the UK's role, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook insisted the strikes were a necessary part of the strategy of containment against Saddam.

"Some of those who ask why we do it would be the very people who would be asking why are we not doing more if we were to abandon it and Saddam was to go back to bombing his own people from the air," he said.

The Conservatives have backed the attack on the grounds of Iraqi provocation but called for further action to be taken.

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See also:

17 Feb 01 | Scotland
Labour MP attacks bombing raids
17 Feb 01 | Middle East
Iraq defiant as allies strike
17 Feb 01 | Middle East
Iraqi press calls for revenge
17 Feb 01 | Middle East
Little support for Iraq attack
16 Feb 01 | Middle East
Analysis: A tougher line?
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