Iraq: Blair nails British colours to the US mast

Prime Minister says he 'thanked heaven' for American readiness to take miltary action.
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TONY BLAIR yesterday signalled that the crisis over Iraq had cemented a closer relationship between himself and President Bill Clinton by telling MPs he "thanked heaven" for the readiness of the United States to "stand up and be counted".

The Prime Minister said the crisis had shown that Britain was "strong with the United States, strong in Europe". And he made it clear Britain would back America in an air strike on Iraq if it became necessary.

The warmth of the Prime Minister's praise for the lead taken by the United States when he briefed MPs on the diplomatic deal signed by Saddam Hussein and Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the UN, caused Labour MPs who had opposed the war to shake their heads in disagreement.

Mr Blair was unequivocal in his backing for Mr Clinton, and he denied it would disrupt Britain's relations with its European partners, in spite of their apparent reluctance to support air strikes.

"I am proud of the fact that Britain has a good and strong relationship with the United States of America. Thank heavens that the Americans are there and willing to stand up and be counted when there are difficult situations that arise in the world," Mr Blair said.

He added: "I personally believe it is important that we have an American administration and an American people who are not isolationist but will to take on responsibilities. I further believe that the strength of our relationship is in no way an impediment to Europe acting in a more concerted way, so Britain is strong with the US, strong in Europe."

Stressing the threat of force had been essential to make Saddam back down, Mr Blair told MPs if the Americans supported a strike he would back them. "I am pleased to say we have had a united position. I am sure that would continue to be the case."

While avoiding triumphalism, Mr Blair said the UN would "do what we can" to assist the opposition forces in Iraq to undermine Saddam. He also told MPs concerned about the shortages of food and medical supplies in Iraq that the UN was "looking at ways in which we can bypass the Iraqi regime and do more in that regard".

In his statement, Mr Blair said: "While the agreement signed in Baghdad is welcome, it is not in itself enough." Saddam remained "an evil, brutal dictator", he said. "We will not tolerate any repetition of the Iraqi behaviour which has led to this agreement. We are not going to play more elaborate diplomatic games that allow Saddam Hussein to thwart the inspections regime which has now been agreed."

William Hague, the Tory leader, joined MPs on all sides in congratulating the Government on its firm stance. He told Mr Blair: "We have always made clear our undivided support for the position of the Government and of the US."

1 Paris (AP) - The French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin yesterday endorsed the agreement reached with Iraq. He told the French parliament that France, which pushed for a diplomatic solution since the stand-off began, would give the accord its approval. "This agreement responds in a satisfactory way to the expectations of the international community and will enjoy the support of France," Mr Jospin said.