Angry backbenchers accuse Blair of double standards over Middle East

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Tony Blair failed to calm Labour MPs' fears over possible military action against Iraq yesterday as he faced one of the most hostile Prime Minister's Question Times since he came to office.

Mr Blair came under fire from three former ministers in the Commons hours after backbenchers questioned him at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The MPs' anger spilt over despite an announcement by the Prime Minister of new proposals to install British and European Union officials to monitor any ceasefire between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Blair made clear that a new United Nations security council resolution, based on a Saudi peace plan for the region, would be sought in New York as early as next week.

He also promised MPs a debate on the Middle East on Tuesday and pledged for the first time that a similar debate would be held on Iraq if any decision was made on military action in the future.

But Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, led the criticism at question time with a searing attack on Mr Blair's comments that critics of his foreign policy were "utterly naive". Mr Kilfoyle asked: "Is it naive to be dismayed at the succour which has been given to Sharon by the mixed messages which have come out of the American and British administrations?

"Is it naive to beware the bellicosity of elements within the American administration based on ideology or is it naive to believe in the centrality of the UN in resolving the problems of the Middle East?"

Jon Owen Jones, Labour MP for Cardiff Central and a former Welsh Office minister, said it was vital to tackle both the Middle East conflict and the Iraq situation without being seen to use "double standards".

George Howarth, a former Home Office minister, said he wanted an assurance that Saddam Hussein would be given every chance to comply with UN resolutions before any action was taken.

The MPs' comments reflected serious concern at Mr Blair's support for possible US military intervention when he met President George Bush in Texas at the weekend. Some 146 MPs, most from the Labour Party, have signed a Commons early day motion expressing "deep unease" at such support.

Mr Blair said Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programmme "has to be confronted and will be confronted".

Labour backbenchers' concerns were underlined when Mr Blair faced extensive questioning over his policy towards Iraq at a meeting of the PLP.

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