Blair may use visit to argue against U.S. attack on Iraq

Friday, April 5, 2002

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair is likely to tell President Bush at their weekend summit that he agrees Iraq poses a serious threat to the West, but now is not the time to launch an offensive against that country.

In fact, given Britain and Europe's widespread concern over the escalating violence in the West Bank, Blair may recommend that the Bush administration make that crisis, and the final phases of the war in Afghanistan, the top priorities of U.S. foreign policy for now.

"I think Prime Minister Blair is going to say, 'Let's weigh anchor for a moment on Iraq while we see what we can do about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis,"' said Steven Simon, assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Blair travels to Bush's home in Crawford, Texas, on Friday, for a summit on a wide range of topics, including Iraq and Afghanistan, where British forces have played a major role in the U.S.-led alliance.

On Thursday, Blair's spokesman said the violence in the Middle East will top the agenda in Crawford.

Blair is appalled by the "most explosive" situation in Israel in years and believes the main challenge is to break the cycle of violence, the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

Therefore, Bush and Blair will try to implement a cease-fire leading to talks aimed at ending the crisis, the spokesman said.

There is no doubt that Britain remains America's closest ally in the war against terrorism, and that Blair will continue his long-standing support for U.S. policy.

But growing skepticism about U.S. foreign policy in Britain and other European countries such as France and Russia recently prompted Blair to tone down calls for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to be toppled.

The most striking example of that hesitation involved Blair's decision to scrap his government's plans this week to publish an intelligence dossier on Iraq's secret arms program aimed at disclosing efforts by Saddam to develop biological, chemical and nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Europe's concerns about the Middle East, and Washington's failure to negotiate a cease-fire in Israel, were evident Thursday, when the European Union sent a high-level mission there, despite Israel's refusal to let it meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Blair also faces growing unease at home and within his Labor Party. More than 120 members of Parliament have signed a motion opposing suggestions by Blair and Bush that Saddam must be removed from power, either in a military attack or support for an inside insurrection.

After Blair indicated that British troops may be available to help overthrow Saddam, Clare Short, a member of Blair's own Cabinet, hinted she might resign if Britain joins such a U.S.-led campaign. Many in Britain fear a war against Saddam will only harm the Iraqi people or lead to a greater conflict dragging in all of the Middle East.

Opinion polls also have shown that much of the British public, which has strongly supported the war on terrorism, shares the concern.

"Blair has got an incipient backbench revolt on Iraq," said Simon. "This doesn't threaten Blair in any sort of fundamental way. But it will shape the way he reaches the conclusion on Iraq that he is groping for. It's causing him to be a bit more careful."

For the time being, observers said Blair may encourage Bush to increase U.S. intervention in the Israeli crisis while taking the time to demand once again that U.N. weapons inspectors be allowed to return to Iraq.

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