Opinion swings in support of the war

Public opinion has swung sharply in support of the war in Iraq following the start of hostilities, surveys revealed yesterday.

Now that British troops are in combat, a clear majority of voters say they believe Tony Blair was right to support the US-led military action.

An ICM survey for the News of the World found that 55 per cent backed the Prime Minister's handling of the crisis, with 37 per cent still critical. Two weeks ago, the same poll found that 29 per cent supported the Government, with 53 per cent believing that war was wrong. A YouGov survey for The Sunday Times produced almost identical findings.

The results will come as a big relief to the Government, which had predicted the public would rally round once British troops became involved in fighting. However, Mr Blair's advisers will be well aware that public opinion could switch again were military action to become bloody and prolonged.

Support for intervention is also well below the 75 per cent recorded before the start of the 1991 Gulf War and the 67 per cent who backed sending ground troops to the Falkland Islands 21 years ago.

The apparent change in mood was reflected by the attendance of, at most, 150,000 protesters at an anti-war demonstration in central London on Saturday.

Although it was Britain's biggest wartime protest, it was dwarfed by the estimated 1.5 million who took to the capital's streets last month.

The rally was marred by minor outbreaks of violence. Police said yesterday that 10 men had been arrested, including an Iraqi aged 28 for alleged criminal damage and a man, 47, from Camberwell for allegedly possessing an offensive weapon.

Rallies were also held on Saturday at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, Tony Blair's constituency of Sedgefield in Co Durham, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Bristol and in five Scottish cities.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The responsibility of teachers is to ensure that pupils are educated, not to encourage them to play truant. Teachers who walk out of schools during the school day will be in breach of contract and as such are liable to discipline by their school governing body."

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