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Blair Builds Case for Desert War on Shifting Sands

Dominic Evans, Reuters

LONDON, 21 February 2003 — First it was the doomsday arsenal he said Iraq is hiding from the world. Then it was Baghdad’s alleged links to Al-Qaeda militants.

Now British Prime Minister Tony Blair is highlighting the “moral case” for military action against President Saddam Hussein — his “barbarous and detestable” human rights record.

“This is a regime which routinely tortures, murders and abuses its people and if we leave Saddam in charge that appalling situation will continue,” he said this week.

Critics say by jumping from one argument to another, Blair is building his case for a desert war on shifting sands.

“The problem is it looks like you’re panicking,” former Foreign Office adviser David Clark said. “It looks like you think you haven’t succeeded in persuading public opinion, or that you feel that you’re not persuaded by your own argument.”

The moral message was one Blair tried to sell to skeptical delegates of his ruling Labour Party at a weekend conference in Scotland as close to a million Britons marched through London to protest against the expected war.

“The moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam,” Blair said. “Many of the people marching will say they hate Saddam. But the consequences of taking their advice is that he stays in charge of Iraq”.

Blair insists the legal case for military action still rests with Saddam’s need to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding Iraq’s full and immediate cooperation with weapons inspectors.

But he has repeatedly linked the threats from weapons of mass destruction and militant groups and, when pressed, has partly echoed US allegations of a connection between Iraq and Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.

And faced with stubborn public opposition to war, Blair has responded by relentlessly playing up the suffering he says Iraq’s population has endured under nearly three decades of Saddam’s rule.

Blair has sent 42,000 troops to the Gulf to support a US build-up of troops preparing for possible war on Iraq.

His government has sought to rally support at home and abroad by publishing three dossiers on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, human rights record and its alleged concealment program to deceive UN weapons inspectors.

But two of the three dossiers have been roundly criticized and an opinion poll published this week showed a majority of Britons opposed military action.

“In trying to persuade a deeply skeptical public, Blair has once again shifted the Baghdad goalposts,” prominent left-wing Labour activist Mark Seddon said after Blair’s weekend speech.

Michael Jacobs, head of the left-wing Fabian Society, said Blair’s focus on the moral and humanitarian case for war was the best argument to persuade doubters in his own Labour party. “But it’s come very late in the day. You could read it as a defense mechanism in case they go to war without a UN mandate,” he said. Britain and the United States face strong opposition inside the UN Security Council to any rush to war.

Blair’s claim to the moral high ground has also roused religious leaders, human rights groups and Labour dissidents.

Britain’s top Anglican and Catholic bishops urged all parties on Thursday to seek peace. “The problem is that the case (for war) is not at the moment finally morally persuasive,” the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries said.

Amnesty International welcomed any moves to focus on Saddam’s human rights record, but said Blair should be calling for monitors, not bombs, to be sent to Iraq.

Veteran Labour politician Tony Benn said the moral argument for starting a conflict was weak. “We would not have solved the problem of apartheid by bombing Pretoria,” he said, referring to the end of decades of white minority rule in South Africa.

And Labour parliamentarian George Galloway, a campaigner against UN sanctions which Iraq says have killed more than a million people, said Blair was justifying war by referring to suffering in Iraq which his own government had denied for years.

“It’s the unkindest cut of all for those of us who, for more than a decade, have been beating our heads against a brick wall of British government denial of the scale and nature of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, to hear it now being used in aid of killing even more Iraqis from land, sea and air,” he said.


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