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Monday, 11 March, 2002, 15:21 GMT
Blair faces war backlash
Soldiers in Iraq
Mounting opposition to war with Saddam Hussein
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Six months ago Tony Blair led the international outrage at the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Along with President George Bush, he gradually built a formidable international coalition backing action against those responsible for the atrocity.

Dick Cheney
Cheney wants action
He met some opposition at home, but even those normally expected to object to military action were persuaded of the case for action.

A small number of Labour backbenchers raised doubts, but the cabinet was united.

Now the prime minister is locked in fresh discussions with President Bush over phase two of the war against terrorism - and he cannot expect such an easy ride.

Ministerial resignations

This time he looks set to have a real battle on his hands to get the cabinet unanimously behind any military action.

Senior ministers, including Clare Short, David Blunkett and Robin Cook have all raised questions over the use of military force against Saddam Hussein.

Others, including Margaret Beckett, are also said to be privately urging caution.

Saddan Hussein
Saddam poses major threat
It has even been suggested there would be ministerial resignations if the prime minister backed military action and committed UK troops.

Below the ranks of the cabinet there is also much more disquiet among backbench MPs than in September - when the sheer horror of the US attacks left nearly all politicians agreed that something needed to be done.

This time round there is a large and solid backbench campaign firmly opposed to any such action and it is far from certain that the use of force against Iraq - not to mention nuclear attacks - would win public support.

The critics believe any action would risk huge numbers of civillian casualties, could further destabilise the region and could easily escalate.

They point out that the action against Afghanistan is still far from over and that the main objective of bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice has yet to be met.

Axis of evil

They also insist that international action would be far better, and ultimately more effective, concentrated on tackling the crisis in the Middle East peace process.

There is also the fear that the UK has gradually shifted the goalposts in the war against terrorism to include the countries President Bush has labelled the "axis of evil".

President Bush's decision to slap tarrifs on steel imports has not improved the atmosphere.

As a result of all this, Tony Blair is treading extremely carefully.

He accepts there is no evidence to link Iraq with the US attacks or al-Qaeda.

Instead Downing Street is placing the emphasis on the prime minister's post-11 September statements in which he warned that the world could no longer ignore the threat from weaons of mass destruction from states like Iraq.

Peace talks

But spokesmen are stressing that no decisions have been taken on exactly how that threat should be met.

It is also clear that Mr Blair wants to see much of the empasis of the latest moves concentrated on the Middle East peace talks.

He is also understandably eager to dismiss suggestions vice-President Dick Cheney has come to London with a request for 25,000 UK troops to be used in a ground assault on Saddam.

Many are drawing parallels between the careful campaign designed to build support for action in the wake of 11 September and the current diplomatic moves.

But there are major differences here, not the least of which is the likelihood of a major rift in the government if Mr Blair weighs in behind US-led military action.

See also:

11 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Cheney meets Blair for Iraq talks
10 Mar 02 | UK Politics
UK plays down Iraq force 'requests'
08 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Blair facing revolt over Iraq
07 Mar 02 | Middle East
Washington's case against Saddam
01 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Britain backs US over Iraq
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