Church leaders warn Blair on Iraq

Severin Carrell,Jo Dillon
Sunday 08 December 2013 06:20

Tony Blair will come under intense pressure from senior religious leaders on Tuesday to distance Britain from US plans to topple the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Last week President George Bush's administration, with Downing Street's backing, dismissed Iraq's invitation to Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, to visit Baghdad for talks on the possible resumption of inspections. Officials described the offer as a delaying tactic, reiterating that the goal remained "regime change" in Iraq.

Yesterday Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, said: "Inspection is not the issue, disarmament is ... We have seen the Iraqis try to fiddle with the inspection system before." A Foreign Office spokesman said President Saddam had "a long history of playing games".

But amid growing speculation of military action against Iraq, a declaration signed by more than 2,500 church groups and religious figures, including Rowan Williams, the next Archbishop of Canterbury, will be handed in to Downing Street. It claims US threats to invade Iraq without UN authority are "deplorable" and violate UN conventions and Christian moral teachings.

Calling for Mr Blair to support a peaceful and legally justified solution to the problem of Iraq, the statement adds: "We deplore any military action that regards the deaths of innocent men, women and children as a price worth paying in fighting terrorists, since this is to fight terror with terror."

In a further blow to the Prime Minister, dissident Labour MPs and trades union leaders have invited Scott Ritter, former head of the UN inspection teams in Iraq and a vociferous critic of US policy, to address a fringe meeting on the first day of Labour's annual conference next month.

Both moves are likely to increase Mr Blair's growing uncertainty about backing the US strategy. However, there is evidence that the Ministry of Defence is preparing troops for a possible invasion of Iraq.

The first batches of an up-graded version of the SA80 infantry rifle are being ear- marked for the military's elite regiments, a signal that these units are being readied for possible combat.

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