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Last Updated: Monday, 10 May, 2004, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Iraqi abuse claims dog Blair
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tony Blair's hopes of drawing a line under the war on Iraq have been dashed by the escalating claims of prisoner abuse.

Blair says he did not see abuse report

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon attempted to calm the atmosphere in Westminster when told MPs that there likely are to be two prosecutions as a result of inquiries into alleged abuse.

He said investigations had been underway, and action taken, before the Red Cross reported.

And he threw doubt over the authenticity of the newspaper photographs which sparked the affair in the UK.

Report

But his statement - while suggesting there is a world of difference between any possible abuses by UK soldiers and those by US troops - will do little to silence this issue.

Both he and the prime minister have insisted they did not see the Red Cross report when it was published in February and that the first they knew of "specific" allegations was when they read about them in the newspapers.

And that has led to the inevitable question of whether they really should have known or whether, as Tory shadow defence secretary Nicholas Soames claimed, they had lost control of the situation in Iraq.

It is a powerful charge and one that ministers will struggle to shrug off.

And, in any case, the damage has probably already been done.

Close relations

Firstly, because of the wider claims of brutality by some British troops contained in the Red Cross report but, probably more dangerously, because of the uncontested cases of abuse by the US.

Even if British soldiers are in the clear, the prime minister is bound to suffer because of his closeness to the US president and his persistent support of the US actions in Iraq.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing inquiries, Mr Blair must be in no doubt that he is now facing probably months more controversy over the war.

And it looks increasingly likely it will rumble on into the next general election.

It will certainly be at the centre of the local, European and London assembly polls on 10 June.

Opposition

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has already called on voters to use the European election to deliver their verdict on the war and the government's handling of it.

That is probably the last thing the prime minister wants them to do, and he has devoted just about every recent speech or public appearance to an attempt to re-focus voters' attention on the big domestic issues which affect their everyday lives.

He had learned to live with a level of opposition to his stand on the war and attempted instead to bring people together around the need to construct a secure and democratic Iraq.

The abuse claims have now overshadowed all that.

Not only has it intensified anti-war sentiments but it has prompted a sense of despair amongst many of those on Mr Blair's own benches who supported the prime minister's actions.

Speculation

And it appears from opinion polls that public support for the war is declining. There is little the prime minister can do about it.

All this comes at a time when his future is a matter of widespread and now routine speculation in Westminster - much of it encouraged by his own friends including Neil Kinnock, Lord Healy and Lord Puttnam who have spoken publicly about his leadership.

According to Lord Puttnam, the prime minister is irrevocably tied to Iraq and there will only be bad news from that country for at least 18 months.

It is a point many on Labour's backbenches have been making for some time.

And despite all Tony Blair's best efforts to "move on", it could still prove to be the turning point for the government and the prime minister himself.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Carolyn Quinn
"It's unlikely the report will be made public"



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