Braced for backlash: Blair to face renewed protests over Iraq

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The fate of Ken Bigley has hung over Tony Blair's Government for three weeks. The confirmation last night that the 62-year-old engineer had been killed will increase the political pressure on Downing Street, intensifying the criticism it faces over Iraq.

Peter Kilfoyle, the former defence minister and the Bigley family's MP, said: "This is the human face of the tragedy that is Iraq writ large."

The Government is confident it will avoid a public backlash over the Bigley murder. While Mr Blair offered his sympathy to the Bigley family on television last night, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, spoke of the diplomatic efforts to secure his release. Mr Straw said: "I don't believe there was, or could have been, anything further we could have done."

Ministers had returned from their summer break desperate to switch the political focus from the chaos in Iraq to domestic issues.

Their hopes were shattered on 16 September, when Mr Bigley and his American colleagues Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong were snatched from their Baghdad home by the Tawhid and Jihad group.

The Government's public line was that it would not negotiate with terrorists, arguing that to do so would encourage more kidnappings.

Ministers soon suspected that the kidnappers were using Mr Bigley to manipulate British public opinion. Some were resigned to the grim prospect of his murder being staged before, or even during, the Prime Minister's address to the Labour conference. Shortly before delegates gathered in Brighton, a cabinet source said the kidnappers "might be barbaric, but they are media sophisticates".

In an emotional address to anti-war delegates at the conference, Ken Bigley's brother Paul accused Mr Blair of signing his "death warrant" by not doing more to secure his release. He called for the hostage-takers' demands to be met.

He said: "Mr Blair's silence for the past 10 days is a kiss of death for my brother. There are two ways of doing business ­ the right way and the wrong way ­ and Mr Blair, with great respect, you're doing it the wrong way."

Mr Blair told a sombre conference two days later that everyone's thoughts were with the Bigley family, before apologising for the first time for the flawed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, but refused to say sorry for the war in Iraq.

Apparently stung by accusations of inactivity, the Prime Minister appeared to change his tone last week as he urged Mr Bigley's captors to get in touch. Although he stressed he was not prepared to negotiate, he said: "They've made no attempt to have any contact with us at all. Of course, if they did make contact, it would be something we would immediately respond to."

As the crisis continued, both Mr Straw and Mr Blair met the family. The Foreign Office distributed 100,000 leaflets in Baghdad, asking for any information about Mr Bigley's whereabouts.

Mr Straw condemned the killing as "inhuman". He said "nothing can justify his killing. It is a terrible crime". He said that the Bigley family had "conducted themselves with the greatest, dignity courage and strength".

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said: "In this moment of their terrible loss, our hearts go out to them. And to those who committed this atrocious and despicable act, our message is: we shall never give in to blackmail from terrorists."

Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, offered his "deepest sympathy" to Mr Bigley's family. "Ken Bigley's murder is simply horrific. This is just senseless and mindless brutality." Iraq's potential to damage the Government had already been underlined by the finding by US weapons inspectors that Saddam Hussein did not have banned weapons.

Glenda Jackson, Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate, said yesterday: "There will be pressure for a full debate on the situation in Iraq next week.

"Quite apart from the tragedy of Ken Bigley, we have seen unspeakable footage of killings including American planes bombing crowds. What I want to see the Prime Minister doing is leaving No 10 with the removal van."