A furious John Smith, the Labour leader, ordered an immediate investigation into the conduct of Mr Galloway which could lead to the withdrawal of the Labour whip and the consequent risk of his eventual deselection.
Despite Mr Galloway's insistence that he had saluted the Iraqi people rather than Saddam Hussein, his troubles deepened last night when the BBC played a tape from its Caversham monitoring unit, appearing to confirm that he had spoken in the broadcast of the dictator's 'courage, strength and indefatigability'.
Mr Galloway said on his return yesterday: 'I did not say anything in praise of Saddam. I was referring to the Iraqi people, their strength, their courage, their forbearance.' Mr Galloway, and two Greek MPs who were also on the trip, are part of a group set up in Athens last year to lobby for an easing or lifting of the UN embargo imposed in response to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Mr Galloway told BBC Radio Scotland that he had described Saddam Hussein just weeks ago as a 'bestial dictator'.
But the Caversham tape, played on BBC Radio's World Tonight, records Mr Galloway, apparently directly addressing Saddam, as saying: 'Sir, I salute your courage your strength and your indefatigability and I want you to know that we are with you . . .' Mr Galloway then breaks into an Arabic phrase in which the word Nasir (victory) is audible. The Reuter news agency had earlier quoted Mr Galloway as saying that . . . 'we are with you until victory'.
Labour stood by a strongly worded statement from John Smith, party leader, warning that 'the Opposition Chief whip will see Mr Galloway immediately on his return to the Commons with a view to initiating disciplinary action'. Speaking before Mr Galloway's denials, Mr Smith said: 'I deeply deplore the foolish statement made in Iraq by Mr George Galloway. In no way did he speak for the Labour Party and I wholly reject his comments.'
While the whips will not recommend a specific penalty until they have established the facts, the controversial MP was still facing at least a stiff formal reprimand.
The anger of the Labour whips was intensified by the fact that Mr Galloway's unauthorised trip meant he missed at least two key votes.