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EDITIONS
Friday, 14 February, 2003, 20:14 GMT
Crunch time for Blair
The Blix speech was watched across the world
Nick Assinder

This is the point of no return for Tony Blair.

If he was looking for something concrete to grab hold of in the Hans Blix report to the UN he did not get it.

In his crunch presentation, Dr Blix fell far short of giving the prime minister and President George W Bush the sort of backing they would have liked to press ahead with their demands for a second UN resolution sanctioning military action against Saddam

If Mr Bush and Mr Blair press ahead with drafting that resolution, as most believe they will, they will do so against an opposition significantly emboldened by the Dr Blix report.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair under increasing pressure

France and Germany insist the report supported their demands for further time for the weapons inspectors to do their job.

France swiftly launched what amounted to a pre-emptive strike by calling for further inspections and yet more reports back to the UN.

Dr Blix certainly suggested there had been movement from Saddam and that, given a little more time, further progress could be made.

That was not what the two allies wanted to hear but it is precisely what France and the other countries opposed to war needed to boost their case.

Taken aback

Dr Blix did not give a ringing endorsement for that case but it was enough to ensure the French would not cave in.

Indeed, France and Germany will now push even harder with their plan for more inspectors to be sent into Iraq.

Britain was clearly taken aback by the support for the French when they called for further delays immediately after Dr Blix's presentation.

The French foreign minister gave a passionate and loudly supported defence of his country's position and, in doing so, made life even harder for the president and the PM.

The prime minister has an even bigger battle on his hands than before Dr Blix's statement and Tony Blair knows his leadership is on the line over this issue

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, clearly on the back foot in the wake of the report, warned the UN it had already been "humiliated" by Saddam Hussain and needed to back its' words with actions.

For Tony Blair this is crunch time. He still faces massive opposition at home and abroad and, over the past weeks, his chances of winning a second resolution have receded.

Friday's developments have widened the rift between the prime minister and his opponents and left him firmly and dangerously on the spot.

Intense diplomatic activity

The next few days will see intense diplomatic activity as he attempts to head off demands for further delays to action against Iraq.

Instead of going out attempting to win support behind the second resolution, Mr Blair will be on the defensive and may even be forced to offer more time to the weapons inspectors.

Mr Blair will make a major speech on Saturday morning to Labour's spring conference in Glasgow where he will drive home his moral case for action.

There will then be a crisis EU summit in Brussels on Monday aimed at healing the widening rift within Nato over the issue.

That will be followed by yet another summit in Rome on Friday.

But if Mr Blair hoped these meetings would be to debate a second UN resolution he will probably be bitterly disappointed.

The momentum appears to be behind France and Germany - the "old Europe" dismissed by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld - as they harden their resolve to avert imminent war.

Mr Blair is not about to change his position supporting President Bush, who is now likely to be in head to head conflict with the UN.

But the prime minister has an even bigger battle on his hands than before Dr Blix's statement.

And Tony Blair, unlike President Bush, knows his leadership is on the line over this issue.


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