Tony Blair sought to cool a growing Labour rebellion yesterday against the military action in Afghanistan by saying that opponents of the war were not "appeasers or faint hearts''.
Before flying to Syria last night on a dual mission to boost the Middle East peace process and strengthen the international coalition against terrorism, the Prime Minister offered a surprise olive branch to his critics at home. The move came amid signs at Westminster that doubts over the military operation were spreading beyond anti-war MPs to normally loyal Labour members.
His comments, during a speech to the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff, were in stark contrast to attacks by three ministers Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, and Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister who have likened the critics to those who appeased the Nazis before the Second World War.
Mr Blair said he realised the British people had fears on the nature and length of the campaign in Afghanistan. He said: "They worry about civilian casualties. They are anxious about the refugee crisis as winter approaches, they wonder what comes after the conflict.
"All these concerns deserve to be answered. No one who raises doubts is an appeaser or a faint heart. We are a democracy, strong enough to have doubts raised ... and wise enough to respond to them.''
Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative leader, entered the debate on the propaganda war last night, warning in an article for The Daily Telegraph that the Government had failed to explain the strategy behind military action in Afghanistan.
He said: "For a Government that prides itself on presentation, it has appeared to be losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the British people."
Alan Simpson, chairman of Labour Against the War, welcomed Mr Blair's remarks as "very helpful" and urged loyalist MPs not to resort to "abuse and caricature" of their opponents. But, he added: "None of the big issues have gone away."
A further signs that public support may be wavering was revealed in an NOP poll for ITN's Powerhouse programme on Channel 4, which suggested that the majority (53 per cent) of the population opposes the bombing of military targets in towns and villages in Afghan-istan, while 38 per cent of people support such action.
Mr Blair warned that al-Qa'ida intended to commit more atrocities if the West did not yield to the network's demands, which he said included the eradication of Israel, "the killing of all Jews'' and the setting up of fundamentalist states in all parts of the Arab and Muslim world.
On the first visit to Damascus by a British Prime Minister, Mr Blair will meet President Bashar Assad as part of another bout of shuttle diplomacy. In a reference to Syria's own close links to extremist Palestinian groups, Mr Blair will tell Mr Assad that terrorist violence "of all kinds'' is counterproductive and will stress the need for nations in the region to re-engage in the peace process. Syria remains on America's blacklist of states that sponsor terrorism and is a base for at least 10 militant groups, including Islamic Jihad, Palestinian Hamas, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) which are opposed to the Oslo proposals to bring peace to the Middle East.
It was the PFLP that triggered massive Israeli retaliation when it claimed responsibility for the assassination two weeks ago of the Israeli Tourism minister, Rechavam Zeevi.
Mr Blair, who is reported to be flying to Israel later this week, is expected to tell Mr Assad that every effort must be made to bring to justice the killers of Mr Zeevi. But Downing Street stressed Mr Blair was not going to "lecture" Mr Assad. Instead, Mr Blair would suggest that Syria should "restrain" the most extreme Palestinian groups.The Prime Minister will reiterate his belief that the Middle East peace process needs to be reinvigorated and will call for a "period of calm to allow politics to be seen to be working''.