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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
A question of trust

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Blair arrived in Basra on Thursday morning
Tony Blair has flown into Iraq surrounded by all the trappings of the liberating hero.

As he arrived in Basra, he was met by a population overwhelmingly grateful that he helped rid them of Saddam Hussein.

And he was given an equally positive reception by the troops left behind to restore peace and order to the ravaged country.

The trip was carefully planned to avoid any signs of triumphalism. The prime minister is well aware of the dangers of going down that path.

He was also careful not to visit the capital, Baghdad, where neither his reception or security could have been guaranteed.

But if Mr Blair had hoped this would be a controversy-free visit, then he has been severely disappointed.

Even as he touched down in the desert he was engulfed by a fresh series of allegations about the war.

Indeed the dismay, anger and criticisms of the way Britain was taken into the conflict are probably at a post-war high, with former ministers Clare Short and Robin Cook able to claim they have been vindicated.

Behind all this is the simple fact that weapons of mass destruction have not been found
First, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has contradicted virtually every statement Mr Blair has made about weapons of mass destruction, suggesting they may never be found.

Far from Saddam having been ready to unleash chemical or biological attacks within 45 minutes - as claimed by the prime minister during the run-up to the war - he said they may have been dismantled before the conflict even started.

Similar sentiments have been hinted at by British ministers over the past few weeks. But none have been that explicit.

Mr Blair, meanwhile, continues to say that he believes "telling evidence" of weapons will be found.

Concern

Second, the very intelligence sources who provided the prime minister with information about Saddam's weapons programme are said to be angry that their report had been allegedly re-written by Downing Street to beef up the threat.

Third, there is mounting concern over the use by coalition forces of cluster bombs in built up areas where they continue to cost lives.

But behind all this is the simple fact that weapons of mass destruction have not been found.

And, despite recent attempts to refocus onto the brutality of Saddam's regime as a good enough reason for having removed him, Tony Blair knows it was only the stated threat from such weapons that legitimised the war.

Now, as with his speech to British troops in Basra, he is placing the emphasis on the historic importance for the region and the world in removing Saddam, suggesting it has massively increased the prospect of peace.

That too is a shifting of the ground. Regime change was not the government's original war aim - it only became one, reluctantly, very late in the day.

Tactic

So, not for the first time, this has all boiled down to a matter of trust.

There is the nagging suspicion that with this war, as with so much else of New Labour, the country was being spun
Time and again both before and since the war Tony Blair has, in effect, asked people to trust him that he was doing the right thing.

It is a tactic he has used many times during his premiership - dating back to his "I'm a pretty straight guy" explanation after the Bernie Ecclestone, cash-for favours row shortly after the 1997 election victory.

But there have been growing signs over the intervening years that voters are becoming increasingly sceptical, even cynical, about such pleas.

There is the nagging suspicion that with this war, as with so much else of New Labour, the country was being spun.

There was overwhelming opposition to the war before it started. Voters were opposed to any action against Iraq without a second UN resolution.

Anger

The prime minister, alongside President Bush, went ahead anyway and, ultimately, won the public around.

That was in large part because of the often-repeated claims about weapons of mass destruction and the claims that Saddam was a real threat, not only to his neighbours, but to the UK itself.

What angers many of the prime minister's critics is that he now appears to be re-writing the original war aims to justify the conflict after the event.

He has received such criticisms before, of course, notably over Kosovo and Afghanistan.

But, while opposition to those wars was limited and has not proved seriously damaging to Mr Blair, this time it may just be different.

The war was without doubt a turning point for the region and possibly the world.

It may yet prove to have been a turning point for Tony Blair as well.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Carole Mitchell
"Touching down in Iraq, and walking into the history books"



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