Tony Blair stakes his career on showdown with Iraq

Blair met Sunday with President Bush on whether to keep seeking UN consensus.

As a potential US-led attack against Iraq looms, the stakes are rising for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In what many diplomats saw as the start of a countdown to war, Mr. Blair met with US President George Bush and Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar Sunday to discuss whether to abandon efforts to secure United Nations approval for an attack.

In consistently supporting President Bush on Iraq, analysts here say, the British prime minister is increasingly risking his political career.

"It makes things very difficult for him," said Professor Paul Wilkinson of the University of St. Andrews. "His party is deeply divided and the public is deeply divided. There have been resignations of party members already. It will be a major challenge to the prime minister. It is a crisis which could cost him his job."

The preservation of Blair's political health depends on three things, analysts say.

First, he must hope that Bush's recent promise to unveil a much-awaited "road map" for negotiations leading to a Palestinian state will buy him some breathing room. The key will be to convince Blair's own party and the wider Muslim world that he is dealing with international problems evenhandedly.

Blair's future may also rest on whether the war proceeds rapidly, successfully, and relatively painlessly. If it does, that could silence Blair's opponents and give the struggling British economy a chance to revive. Views of Blair's leadership will also depend on any fallout that results from the war in Iraq or in the wider Muslim world.

"If the war went terribly badly and was followed by large-scale terrorist attacks on the British Isles, you could argue he would become an electoral liability and would be thrown out by his own party," says David Baker of the University of Warwick.

A catastrophic economic downturn could destabilize Blair, Mr. Baker says. He adds, though, that "what usually happens after wars like this is an upturn."

Many "if's" could return to trouble Blair - if Baghdad holds out, if Iraqi civilians die in thousands, if Saddam torches his oil wells or uses his biological weapons, if conflict erupts between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq, if the Muslim world ignites.

"If just some of that starts to happen, then it will be very difficult for a prime minister who didn't manage to take his party or country with him," says Wilkinson. "It would be difficult for him to withstand pressure to resign."

Last week, Blair offered proposals aimed at breaking the deadlock over the second resolution. Those, however, were rejected by key UN members France and Russia.

At least one cabinet minister, Clare Short, has warned she will quit if Blair goes to war without a second UN resolution. Several other government members, from junior ministers up to former foreign secretary Robin Cook, are mulling similar action. And members of Parliament are likely to revolt en masse when Parliament holds an 11th-hour debate on an Iraq war, likely this week. Paradoxically, Blair is safe in Parliament because the opposition Conservatives support his position

Two-thirds of the public, however, opposes war without a UN resolution. And the economy is skittish at the prospect of a drawn-out war, with the stock market at its lowest levels in almost eight years.

Meanwhile, Blair's international alliances are under strain. Relations with France and Germany have hit low points in the past, but rarely does the language break the usual diplomatic niceties as it did last week, with accusations of French "intransigence" and "poison."

"There has been a tectonic shift in Blair's Europe policy," says Wilkinson. "The consequences of unilateral action are really quite major for the international relations of the globe. It will take an effort to repair relations in the EU; we need the EU to work because there is so much at stake economically."

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