Blair accused of union 'stitch-up' in conference vote on troops pull-out

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Tony Blair was accused of a "stitch-up" yesterday after Labour avoided a damaging defeat on Iraq that would have wrecked its last annual party conference before the general election.

Ian McCartney, the Labour Party chairman, played a crucial role in the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting to persuade union leaders to switch their votes to support the Prime Minister and defeat a rebel motion calling for a date to be set for the withdrawal of British troops.

Leaders of the big four unions were later criticised by their own members for abandoning the policy adopted at the TUC conference in favour of a date for the pull-out of British troops. Dorothy Macedo of Unison, the public service union, attacked "manoeuvring" by the union leadership.

Alan Simpson, the Nottingham South MP who is a leader of Labour Against the War, said: "It was a stitch-up, but all the arm-twisting that has gone into this will be meaningless because the debate in the party and the country goes on."

The Iraqi interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, said in London that he was "grateful that the leaders of the multinational force have promised they will stay in Iraq for as long as they are needed. Calls for early withdrawal are music to the ears of the terrorists and insurgents."

In Brighton, a trade union leader from Iraq, Abdullah Mushin, played a crucial part in persuading the unions to back the Prime Minister. He warned the Transport and General Workers' delegation before the debate that if troops were pulled out too soon, trade unionists in Iraq could die in a civil war.

Mr Blair faced a sustained attack by Labour grassroots supporters for taking Britain into the war and trust in his judgement may be permanently damaged. However, even the dissidents made clear they feared that early withdrawal of troops could lead to a greater bloodbath in Iraq.

The Labour leadership used another Iraqi dissident to swing conference support. Shanaz Rashid, an Iraqi Kurd whose husband is a member of the interim Iraqi government, fled to Britain 30 years ago after her father was murdered by Saddam's regime. She was given a standing ovation after a passionate defence of Tony Blair over the war.

Ms Rashid, who now lives in Redhill, Surrey, was close to tears as she said: "It is not only the life of that very courageous man Mr Bigley that is being threatened with beheading, it is democracy, human rights, freedom and peace that are being buried alive. Some of you may feel you can attack your leader over Iraq, but it is Mr Blair who has stood up to Saddam and freed my people"

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, had pleaded with the unions in private meetings against supporting a withdrawal of troops next year.

Mr Hoon said that backing the "troops out" motion would mean abandoning the Iraqi people. "We must stay the course and see the job through," he said.

Mr Straw admitted that Iraq was "divisive in this country" but he said he had not expected the resolve by all concerned to make the UN and international co-operation work better. The conference backed a Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) statement saying British troops remained in Iraq "only at the request of the Iraq government until the end of the UN mandate at the end of December 2005".

Shahid Malik, a member of the NEC, said: "Now is not the time to desert the people of Iraq. They would not forgive us."

Pat Healy, from Regent's Park and Kensington CLP, called for a card vote on her constituency's motion calling on the Prime Minister to "name an early date for the withdrawal of British forces".

* John Prescott attacked President George Bush and the "compassionate conservatism" of Michael Howard in closing the conference. "If anyone has any doubt about what happens when the right takes over the country, ask the Americans."