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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Blair the war leader
By Ben Davies
BBC News Online political staff

Tony Blair probably wants to be remembered for reforming the public services or taking Britain to the heart of Europe - not as a war leader.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair addresses troops in front of the media in Basra

But from Kosovo to Sierra Leone, Afghanistan to Iraq, military action has become an increasingly prominent feature of his period in office.

His belief in humanitarian intervention - the need for countries like Britain and America to take a stand against genocide and ethnic cleansing wherever they find it, whether the country poses a threat or not - was set out at an early stage in his premiership.

But after the horror of 11 September the doctrine took on a new dimension.

Now, Mr Blair argued in a 2004 speech in his Sedgefield constituency, pre-emptive military action has to be taken against rogue states or to combat the growing menace of international terrorism.

Kosovo offensive

The result is that British forces have been engaged somewhere in the world for much of the past seven years.

In March 1999, Mr Blair sent British planes into action, alongside their Nato allies, against Slobodan Milosevic.

The air strikes prompted the Serbs to force Kosovans out of Kosovo into Albania in vast numbers - although the UK government insisted Milosevic had long planned a spring offensive.

Justifying the attack, Mr Blair said: "We are taking this action for one very simple reason: to damage Serb forces sufficiently to prevent Milosevic from continuing to perpetrate his vile oppression against the Kosovo Albanian people."

Serb sympathy

He dismissed suggestions Nato action caused the displacement of Kosovan Albanians as "simply absurd" and added that Britain was fighting on the side of a "just cause".

Slobodan Milosevic
Mr Milosevic was subsequently toppled from power
UK involvement provoked outrage among some Labour MPs, such as Tony Benn, Alice Mahon and Tam Dalyell.

It also had its fair share of opponents on the Conservative benches especially from those who had sympathy with the Serbs.

Blunders during the bombing raids that saw innocent civilians killed along with Chinese officials and journalists at Serbian TV all added to concerns.

But the prime minister enjoyed support from the overwhelming number of Labour backbenchers.

First hand

Writing in May 1999 for BBC News Online, Mr Blair branded what was happening in Kosovo as "racial genocide".

He had just come back from a visit to Macedonia where he had met Kosovan refugees in border camps.

"I heard first-hand of women raped, of children watching their fathers dragged away to be shot. I was told of whole villages, their villages, torched as they were forced to flee.

"These refugees are the reason we are engaged in this conflict. We have pledged they will return."

Mr Blair used his article to remind readers of the diplomatic efforts that had taken place before Nato resorted to force.

Atrocities

"Even when Milosevic was talking peace he was planning war," he wrote.

In 2000 British troops were sent in to back-up the forces of the restored democratic government in Sierra Leone and helped end a 10-year civil war.

The government forces had been trained and equipped by a British company, Sandline International.

Robin Cook
Mr Cook was foreign secretary at the time of Sierra Leone
The Foreign Office had approved arms sales to Sandline's client, the country's elected president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

But the approval had defied a UN arms embargo - prompting criticism of just what British officials and ministers knew about the legally questionable enterprise of taking guns into the troubled African state.

Robin Cook, then the foreign secretary, was forced to defend himself as the Conservative opposition called for his scalp.

Meanwhile the head of the mercenary firm Sandline International, which was at the centre of what became known as the arms-to-Africa row, described his conduct in supplying weapons to help restore President Ahmed Kabbah's government as "ethical".

Tim Spicer also said senior figures in the Foreign Office knew what he was up to all along.

He said at the time: "Actions by private military companies that act on the side of good - such as restoring a democratically-elected president - can only fit into what I would understand as an ethical foreign policy."

Hero's welcome

He added: "What we were intending to do was known by the Foreign Office and we were very open about it."

In the end any criticism was brushed off probably because of the way things turned out. When Tony Blair visited the country he was greeted as a hero.

He said: "Of course it's the case that nobody should be involved deliberately in breaking a UN arms embargo.

"But for heaven's sake let us not forget that what was happening was that the UN and the UK were both trying to help a democratically elected regime."

An inquiry report was fairly damning.

But opposition to Sierra Leone was largely confined to a few left-wingers attacking the method of intervention and murmuring about "neo-imperialism" and Tory attacks on what ministers knew and when about the arms sales.

Hamid Karzai
Mr Karzai's influence does not extend much beyond Kabul
The next war, in Afghanistan, came on the back of outrage over the 11 September atrocities in the US.

Those on the left normally cautious about military action were divided with some believing the Taleban regime was sufficiently objectionable for them to be able to back its removal.

But there was significant concern about the methods of combat being employed - the dropping of cluster and daisy cutter bombs being just two examples.

Labour rebels led by Father of the House, Tam Dalyell, forced a Commons vote in protest at the continued bombing of Afghanistan.

Taleban

It was a symbolic gesture which the government easily defeated by 373 votes to 13.

But the war has continued to have repercussions with some parts of Afghanistan outside Kabul remaining largely lawless and, in some places, the Taleban retaining influence.

Reports of record low prices for heroin have also done little to help the impression the military intervention has achieved as much as supporters had hoped.

But with Iraq rarely out of the headlines, attention is rarely focused on the troubled country.

And it is this latest war that has provided Tony Blair with his greatest challenge.

MPs' vote

Unprecedented numbers of the public marched against invading Iraq.

A large number of MPs, 121 of them Labour, voted against attacking the country.

And even supporters have been forced to admit that the absence of a chemical or biological capability has severely undermined the case the prime minister initially made.

Tony Blair and George W Bush
Mr Blair has pledged to stay the course alongside Mr Bush
Questions were raised over the number of civilians killed by coalition forces and shocking images of abuses by US forces at Abu Ghraib jail added to concerns about events in Iraq.

The prime minister has made several bids to refocus attention back on domestic issues but each time he appears to be making headway something happens in Iraq.

Staying the course?

The latest event has been the publication of the Butler report into the quality and use of intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before the war.

This report said there was no evidence of deliberate distortion of the intelligence, but did say that the notorious September 2002 dossier, and accompanying statement from Mr Blair, may have given the impression that the intelligence was firmer and fuller than was the case.

Mr Blair remains adamant that the decision to liberate Iraq from a tyrant like Saddam Hussein was the right one.

And, like George W Bush, he has pledged the US-led coalition will stay the course - but it is impossible to tell just when they will withdraw.

As he said in March 2004: "No decision I have ever made in politics has been as divisive as the decision to go to war to in Iraq. It remains deeply divisive today."

It remains to be seen just what effect it has on his and Labour's future prospects.




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