Tony Blair's risky stance on Iraq

The British leader is supporting the most unpopular war since the 1956 Suez campaign.

Saddam Hussein is not the only leader whose political career may be cut short by war in Iraq.

Tony Blair is suddenly also looking vulnerable.

The British prime minister, once the darling of public opinion here, is struggling to convince his own people - not to mention his own party - of the merits of disarming Saddam Hussein by force.

Public opinion is formidably opposed to going to war without a second UN resolution sanctioning force. Mr. Blair has said he would "prefer" to get UN backing for military action, but has also indicated that he is fully prepared to invade Iraq alongside US troops without the all-clear from the Security Council.

If he does so - and Britain has already sent 40,000 troops to the Gulf - Blair will be prosecuting the most unpopular war since the 1956 Suez campaign. That war brought down Prime Minister Anthony Eden.

All eyes on the UN

"The second resolution is crucial," says Prof. Paul Whiteley of Essex University. "He would be taking serious risks without it.

"He's already taking the biggest risk since he took office in 1997," Professor Whiteley says. "There is so much opposition inside the Labour Party," he adds, "and it looks as though it is having an impact on his popularity in the country."

Blair is among a handful of European leaders who have risked supporting President Bush on Iraq despite huge opposition from their constituents. Of these leaders, Blair has been by far the most vocal, and has backed up his words with a significant military and financial commitment.

While Mr. Bush can probably count on strong domestic support regardless of the UN position, less than 1 in 10 Britons would back Blair without a second UN resolution, according to a BBC poll released late Wednesday. The same poll found, however, that just over half of the 1,000 respondents continue to admire Blair as a leader, agreeing with the statement that "he does what he believes to be right for Britain."

But another survey, published in The Times earlier this week, found that support for Blair had evaporated to such an extent that his party was just one percentage point ahead of the perennially ragged Conservative opposition. One third of Britons polled said their opinion of Blair had gone down because of his Iraq policy. According to this sampling, Blair is now no longer the most popular party leader in Britain.

The problem is that while most Britons subscribe to the view that Saddam Hussein is a thoroughly objectionable dictator, they are not convinced of a compelling link between Saddam and Al Qaeda terrorists.

Not even the sight of 400 armed British troops securing Heathrow Airport this week from an unspecified terrorist threat could jolt people into making a Baghdad-bin Laden link.

A doubting public

Tens of thousands of demonstrators are expected to show up for an antiwar rally in central London on Saturday. The Church of England has grave misgivings about the case for war. And some anti-war campaigners say they will try to take Blair to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague if he goes to war.

"There seems to be a general sense that people do not approve of the way Tony Blair is handling the situation," says Paul Ilett, a pollster with the MORI research institute. "Every time a new poll comes out, there seems to be a hardening of opinion, a feeling that unless there is UN approval, we shouldn't be joining any action," he says.

Pollsters say that if the UN passes a second resolution sanctioning an attack, then Blair could persuade the majority of Britons to back him.

This means that Blair, more than most, will be hoping for damning evidence from Hans Blix, when the chief weapons inspector relates his latest findings in Iraq to the Security Council today. Even then, analysts say, it could still take weeks to achieve a consensus in the Security Council.

And even with UN backing, Blair has far more to lose than gain from a war with Iraq - particularly if becomes a long- drawn-out affair with heavy British casualties - political observers say.

His role as Bush's unwavering ally has already earned him a long list of unflattering sobriquets, including puppet, poodle, the US "foreign minister," and the MP [member of Parliament] for Texas North.

It doesn't help matters that Blair has a successor-in-waiting in his chancellor, Gordon Brown, who, apart from grudgingly setting aside £1.75 billion (almost $3 billion) to fund the possible war, is not surprisingly saying as little as possible about Iraq. Britain may not be due for another election until 2006, but if a party is going to change leaders, then midterm (2003)is the time to do it, political observers say.

There are signs, meanwhile, that the Iraq question is impeding Blair's political astuteness. Last week he made an uncharacteristic gaffe on television over asylum numbers. Tentative questions about his trustworthiness have meanwhile been raised by the revelation that part of a document used to argue the case for war was plagiarized from a student's thesis.

The war debate has also blown open Blair's carefully crafted European alliances, putting him at loggerheads with France and Germany.

Even if the war is brought to a prompt conclusion, it remains to be seen how much credit Blair will derive. "Fighting and winning a war usually makes you look strong and decisive, as it did for Mrs. Thatcher over the Falklands," says Whiteley. "But Blair is increasingly looking like Bush's poodle, so instead of looking strong and decisive, he looks weak, and even if the war is very successful, he's not going to get any credit."

Moral conviction

With all the negatives, one could ask why Blair has so adamantly sides with Bush.

Interviewers have sought an answer in his sense of Christian morality. One even asked recently if he and Bush prayed together - a question Blair sidestepped.

The answer may indeed be closely linked to the prime minister's moral code. He told Parliament on Wednesday that while innocent people die in war, greater numbers would perish if the status quo were allowed to persist.

"The moral choice has to weigh up the moral consequences of war, but the alternative is to carry on with the sanctions regime, which, because of the way Saddam implements it, has actually resulted in thousands of people dying needlessly," he said.

The moral justification may satisfy the prime minister, but it may not be good enough for everybody. "Tony Blair is quite convinced," said influential Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody. "The problem is he hasn't convinced the rest of us."

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