Kidnap threatens Blair attempt to heal Labour rift over war

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The backlash over the hostage crisis revived Labour divisions over the war on Iraq last night and threatened to overshadow next week's Labour Party conference.

The backlash over the hostage crisis revived Labour divisions over the war on Iraq last night and threatened to overshadow next week's Labour Party conference.

The fate of the British hostage Kenneth Bigley was rapidly turning into a disaster for Tony Blair, who was criticised by Labour MPs for refusing to negotiate with terrorists to save Mr Bigley's life. Many believe the crisis, which has graphically brought home the violent struggle in Iraq, could become a defining moment for Mr Blair and his government.

The Prime Minister will face growing demands, led by the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, for the early withdrawal of British troops from Iraq because of the violence.

Anti-war protesters are planning to attend fringe meetings on Sunday at the opening of the conference to demand British troops be pulled out. Unions and left-wing MPs are tabling an emergency motion on the main floor of the conference calling for a debate on Iraq and for troops to be withdrawn after the election of an Iraqi government in January. Mr Blair had hoped to use the conference as the springboard for Labour's general election campaign, refocusing the Government on its domestic agenda, including the radical proposals for improving the public services.

Party strategists planned to draw a line under Labour divisions over the war with Mr Blair's declaration at the weekend that the coalition forces were now engaged in the "second war" for Iraq.

However, as the hostage crisis deepens, Labour criticism of the Prime Minister's support for George Bush on the war resurfaced. Alan Simpson, the chairman of Labour Against the War, said Mr Blair should have forced Mr Bush to release the two "high-value"women held by the Americans.

"I join the family of the hostages in Liverpool saying: release these women. We would rather have three free people than one dead man," Mr Simpson, the MP for Nottingham South, said.

Alice Mahon, another leading anti-war Labour MP, said: "What are we holding these women for? We have scientists who have made all sorts of horrible things." Ms Mahon said Labour Against the War would campaign at the conference for the early withdrawal of troops. "They are the problem, not the solution," she said.

The appeal for British troops to be pulled out after the elections in January gained credibility because it is being led by Mr Cook, whose judgement has been widely seen to have been vindicated by the unravelling of the post-war administration of Iraq.

Mr Cook said on BBC2's Newsnight: "We need to convince the Iraqi people that we are going to leave. The insurgency is going to continue so long as we give the impression that we have no intention of leaving. I think we should make it clear that as soon as the election has happened and there is a representative government, we are then leaving."

Mr Blair was clearly stung by the personal criticism levelled by the family of Mr Bigley who called a 1.30am press conference after the hostage takers had beheaded one of the two American hostages held with Mr Bigley. They accused Mr Blair of spending more time launching a new train with Sir Richard Branson than working on Mr Bigley's release. Senior Labour MPs said that such criticism was unfair, but that the impact could be lasting and damaging.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, telephoned the family at 8am yesterday. After a five-minute call, he flew to New York to attend the UN meeting. It was as a result of that call that Mr Blair later spoke to the family himself.

As the hostage deadline neared, there were signs of a shift by the Foreign Office, which distanced itself from the US in an appeal on the al-Arabiya television station by an Arabic-speaking British diplomat, Dean McLoughlin. He emphasised to the hostage takers that the Americans were holding the women, not the British. He said: "The British forces in Iraq have no Iraqi female prisoners, not one."

The statement was the first clear attempt by Britain to disown the actions of the US.

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