Wednesday 26 February 2003
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered by far the largest revolt he has faced from his war-wary Labor Party but still won a parliamentary vote Wednesday over tackling Iraq.
The government put forward a motion asking parliament to back United Nations efforts to disarm Iraq. It did not mention the possibility of war, which Blair says could follow within weeks if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein does not disarm.
But 199 parliamentarians backed an amendment to that motion stating that the case for war is unproven, fearing they will not get another say before military action begins.
Embarrassingly for Blair, 122 of them came from his ruling Labor Party -- more than a quarter of the total in parliament -- dwarfing any previous internal rebellion he has faced in nearly six years in power.
Blair's huge parliamentary majority and the support of most opposition Conservatives ensured he won the vote by 393 to 199.
But the scale of the revolt far exceeded expectations and will add to the impression of a leader standing dangerously out on a limb with opinion polls showing most Britons would not support a new Gulf war.
Earlier in the day Blair tried to win over doubters, pledging to work flat out to secure a second U.N. resolution before any war on Iraq.
``We will have support for a second resolution,'' he told parliament. ``Saddam still has the opportunity if he were to take it of full compliance but so far he has not done so.''
Much of the opposition to war, in the Labor Party and wider public, would melt away if a fresh U.N. mandate was secured.
But Blair will struggle to get it with international powers like France, Germany and Russia demanding more time for weapons inspections and diplomacy to work.
Britain and the United States have tabled a resolution saying Saddam has failed to take a final opportunity to disclose and get rid of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
They say it could be put to a vote in two weeks' time if Iraq does not comply fully with U.N. weapons inspectors by then, and have poured tens of thousands of troops into the Gulf in preparation for a possible attack on Iraq.
France and Germany say a majority on the U.N. Security Council support their view. London and Washington are engaged on a frantic round of international diplomacy to secure support from other countries on the 15-member council.
HOW MUCH DAMAGE?
Blair already knows he has not convinced his public of the need for war. A million people took to the streets of London this month for an anti-war rally, while recent polls show his approval rating has plunged.
But there is no sign of a change of heart.
``Delay would give Saddam the clearest possible signal that his strategy is succeeding,'' Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told parliament. ``It would tell him that the international community lacks the will to disarm him.''
Feelings ran high during the debate.
``There may well be a time for military action,'' Chris Smith, a former minister in Blair's cabinet, said. ``But at the moment the timetable appears to be determined by the decisions of the President of the United States and not by the logic of events.''
Blair's aides believe his political future depends on the length and casualty level of any war as much as U.N. diplomatic maneuvering. He need not face an election for three years, a long time for memories to fade. But some will not forget.
``I do not believe it will be short and sharp,'' firebrand Labor MP George Galloway said of a new Gulf war. ``The consequences of it...the seismic impact of it will disfigure life in this country and around the world for years.''
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