Hawkish Blair tries to calm the doubters

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair gave a stark warning to Labour MPs last night that "Britain will be at America's side" in any military action against Iraq despite the potential cost to his premiership.

Mr Blair drew on the lessons of Kosovo, Afghanistan and even Sierra Leone as he made his most hawkish speech on the need for the global community to topple dangerous regimes.

In a wide-ranging exposition of Britain's foreign policy goals, the Prime Minister covered trade, aid and the war on terrorism as he outlined his personal vision of the need for global "interdependence" in the 21st century.

His clear warning of possible military action against Iraq, rather than his thoughts on the intricacies of conflict resolution in Congo and Angola, is what is bound to provoke further anger among Labour backbenchers.

Mr Blair will attend a potentially stormy meeting with the Parliamentary Labour Party in the Commons on Wednesday, when MPs are expected to protest at policies on everything from erosion of workers' rights in this country to British troops being sent to Afghanistan.

Clearly anticipating a rough ride on Iraq, Mr Blair went to the length of making a less than veiled reference to his own MPs in his speech last night. "I know some fear precipitate action. They needn't," he said.

The Prime Minister's Texas speech seemed at times as much a plea to his critics as an elaboration of the credo described by his foreign policy adviser, Robert Cooper, as "the new imperialism".

Mr Blair said hard-headed pragmatism was needed for the international community to pursue its "Utopian" goals of peace, prosperity and freedom. Such pragmatism involved recognising that American power affected the world fundamentally and that it was in Britain's interest for the United States to be engaged abroad.

"It is there. It is real. It is never irrelevant. It can affect the world for good or affect it for bad," he said. In a reference to his difficulties at home, Mr Blair said he was prepared to pay the political price for his support and would not shirk from his responsibility.

"When America is fighting for those values, then, however tough, we fight with her," the Prime Minister said. "No grandstanding, no offering implausible but impractical advice from the comfort of the touchline, no wishing away the hard choices on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, or making peace in the Middle East, but working together, side by side," he said.

Mr Blair said he would always remember driving through the villages near Freetown in Sierra Leone seeing the people rejoicing – many of them amputees – and "their joy at being free to debate, argue and vote as they wished.

"I have been involved as British Prime Minister in three conflicts involving regime change, Milosevic, the Taliban and Sierra Leone, where a country of 6 million people was saved from a murderous group of gangsters who had hijacked the democratically elected government," he said.

Mr Blair said he hoped Syria, Iran and North Korea could be persuaded to reform, but Iraq faced a "calm, measured, sensible, firm" response if it failed to comply with UN demands.

The strength of feeling in the party on Iraq was underlined when Lord Healey, formerly a chancellor and deputy leader, joined the chorus of politicians warning against military action. "The most worrying thing about George Bush is he is now seen throughout the Muslim world as the Great Satan. He described what he is doing as a crusade – that is a holy war against another religion," he told BBC's Breakfast with Frost. "So the Muslims inevitably respond with a jihad, a holy war against Christians. The result is anti-Americanism and anti-Britishness."

Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, said "Texan gung-ho commentary" was not helpful. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, said: "It is going to inflame Arab opinion against us and it will result in civilian deaths in Iraq and no doubt, British soldiers as well."

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, sought to calm nerves, saying any decision on military action was "a long way off", and suggesting President Bush could change his mind about the need for an attack if Iraq allowed weapons inspectors back in. He said: "I am fairly certain that were he [Saddam] to [let in inspectors], and that was a clear indication of what President Bush was saying, then different decisions may be taken."

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