Blair hit by Lebanon backlash as minister admits ceasefire 'mistake'

The war lasted 34 days. It left 1,393 people dead. Another 5,350 injured. And more than 1,150,000 displaced, of whom 215,413 are still homeless. The damage amounts to more than £2.6bn. Exactly one month after it ended, a Foreign Office minister admits that Tony Blair should have called for a ceasefire
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A Foreign Office minister has conceded that Tony Blair's refusal to call for a ceasefire during 34 days of slaughter in Lebanon may have been a mistake.

The admission by Kim Howells, minister for the Middle East, reflects the growing worries of senior figures in government that Mr Blair's defence of US foreign policy at every turn is damaging his administration at home and abroad.

Mr Howells also conceded that the decision to oppose - with the US - the international demand for an immediate ceasefire was not properly explained to the British public.

Mr Blair's isolated stance is seen as a major reason for the revolt that forced him to announce last week that he would be standing down within 12 months.

The Prime Minister's controversial approach to foreign policy - he has been criticised as President Bush's poodle - has begun to unravel of late. Yesterday, he was pleading in vain with Nato members to pledge 2,000 more troops to the troubled mission in Afghanistan, where 40 British servicemen have been killed in recent weeks.

In a further setback yesterday for the Prime Minister, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, denounced the US prison camp at Guantanamo as "a shocking affront to the principles of democracy". He had previously called it "intolerable and wrong". Mr Blair, though, refused to be drawn on those remarks. He has gone no further than to call the camp an "anomaly", and has steadfastly refused demands to intervene with Mr Bush.

Iraq, where Mr Blair has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr Bush, remains a quagmire, and there are growing doubts among the British military about its ability to fight on two fronts in the "war on terror".

Mr Howells' remarks will fuel the growing exasperation inside and outside Parliament with the Government's foreign policy.

During a two-hour grilling by MPs on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he admitted that it might have been more effective if the UK had pursued a "dual" policy of simultaneously calling for a ceasefire in Lebanon and trying to find a solution to the crisis.

He also implied that the Israeli bombing of Lebanon had been a military blunder that left Hizbollah stronger.

He told MPs: "I'm not saying that a dual approach might not have worked. I'm not saying that, I'm not dismissing that at all. Maybe it would have worked. What I am saying is we had to take decisions at the time based on what we knew and what intelligence we had. That's why we took those decisions. They were taken in absolute good faith - not in complicity with the Americans or anyone else." Mr Howells, who has a reputation for blunt speaking, went on to admit that it was "a difficult position to defend" and added: "We didn't try to explain it very well."

During the conflict, which left up to 1,400 Lebanese dead and inflicted an estimated £3bn damage on the country, Mr Blair refused every challenge to join calls for a ceasefire.

It was this defiance that fuelled the crisis that overtook Mr Blair's premiership, when 17 Labour MPs, including a defence minister, signed a letter calling on him to resign.

Mr Blair's visit to Beirut this week provoked a demonstration by hundreds of students who accused him of being pro-Israeli. In public, the Prime Minister has defended his position, saying his effectiveness as a mediator in the Middle East depended on good relations with the US and Israeli governments. But privately one of his senior advisers admitted this week: "We got it wrong. We didn't get the balance right. We gave the impression we were against the ceasefire."

Mr Howells' remarks were applauded by both defenders and critics of government policy. Andrew Mackinlay, a member of the committee, said: "It was refreshingly candid. What we got from it was some recognition that if they had their time over again, they would do things differently.

"It gave me the impression that he's of the view that a twin approach could and should have been applied. We're now paying a heavy price for not having done that."

The Liverpool MP Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, said: "There's no doubt that a dual approach would have been the right thing to do both morally and in terms of what is in the country's interest. It's clear to see, if only because of what has been shown during the Blair visit to the Lebanon, that our approach has devalued our standing in the region."

The former foreign office minister Denis MacShane, a Blair supporter, said: "In geopolitical terms, calling for a ceasefire would not have stopped a single bomb from being dropped or a single rocket from being fired, but the whole of Britain was outraged by what they saw on television and there are times when government must consider public opinion."