Downing St tries to quell growing revolt over Iraq

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Indy Politics

Downing Street moved to quell growing backbench dissent over Iraq last night, dismissing suggestions that Tony Blair and George Bush would draw up plans this week for a military strike against President Saddam Hussein's regime.

With Labour MPs threatening to bring up the crisis in the Middle East during tomorrow's recall of Parliament to pay tribute to the Queen Mother, Mr Blair's official spokesman played down the importance of a meeting between the two leaders in Texas. The spokes-man said the world could not "bury its head in the sand" over the threat posed by President Saddam, but stressed: "This isn't a decision-making summit. This is a thinking-through-the-options summit. We're not going to be coming out of Texas with decisions taken. It is not a council of war."

Mr Blair is expected to use the meeting, at Mr Bush's ranch in Texas, to urge caution on the President, arguing in favour of diplomatic, rather than military, action against Iraq. He is also likely to point out that toppling President Saddam, without having a clear idea of his replacement, could prove futile.

A British dossier on Iraq's weapons threat has already been delayed by the Prime Minister amid speculation that it provided too little hard evidence to justify strikes on Baghdad. The Government is also understood to believe that publishing it on the eve of the Bush-Blair summit would exacerbate fears among Arab states that attacks were imminent.

The new note of caution reflects worries within the Ministry of Defence over the armed forces' capacity to join attacks on Baghdad and opinion polls displaying public doubt over the wisdom of extending the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan.

Mr Blair will also be keen to mollify critics of action against Iraq, both within the Government's ranks and on his back benches. A total of 122 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion opposing an attack.

Several left-wingers suggested yesterday that the emergency three-hour recall could be extended to include a statement, and short debate, on events in Israel and the Palestinian territories. George Galloway, MP for Glasgow Kelvin, said he had no wish to be disrespectful or to impinge on the commemoration of the Queen Mother. However, he added: "Britain has a special responsibility for the crisis in the Middle East, and it is an issue that must be discussed, perhaps on the adjournment."

Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, said it would be "ludicrous" not to take the opportunity to discuss the latest crisis in the region.

"It is not disrespectful. It is the right thing to do and I would support any moves to do that. The situation in the Middle East has become so grave that Parliament should have been recalled to discuss it anyway. Once the House is there, it can do anything it likes," Mr Corbyn said.

David Hinchliffe, MP for Wakefield, said: "Obviously the purpose of the recall is to pay tributes to the Queen Mother. But we have got to live in the real world and, looking at the seriousness of the situation, I would be supportive of at least some form of statement."

Downing Street suggested their calls would be rebuffed. A spokesman said: "Parliament is being recalled for a specific purpose and that purpose is to pay tribute to the Queen Mother."