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Prime Minister Tony Blair won the support of the House of Commons for war yesterday, but he failed to stop a rebellion among a large block of his own Labour MPs who are opposed to military action in Iraq. (Getty Images)...





Mar. 19, 2003. 01:00 AM 

Blair wins backing for military force

MPs told Saddam poses `a real and present danger' Commons' votes 412-149 in support of motion on war


LONDON—Prime Minister Tony Blair won the support of the House of Commons for war yesterday, but he failed to stop a rebellion among a large block of his own Labour MPs who are opposed to military action in Iraq.

With the loss of three cabinet ministers and a significant number of Labour MPs voting against the government over war with Iraq, Blair has paid a heavy political price for his steadfast support for U.S. President George W. Bush.

The Commons voted 412-149 in support of the government's war motion, but an amendment that said the case for war was not established drew support from more than 130 Labour MPs, about a third of his party. That amendment, however, was defeated 396-217.

Blair introduced his government's resolution authorizing the use of military force to disarm Saddam Hussein, giving a forensic account of the case against the Iraqi dictator while appealing to MPs to back war to protect global security.

"Back away from this confrontation now and future conflicts will be infinitely worse and more devastating in their effects," he said.

Blair acknowledged the ties between repressive regimes and terrorists may be "loose" today, but he said the possibility of a rogue dictator like Saddam supplying terrorists groups with weapons of mass destruction is "a real and present danger."

No one in the West doubts Saddam possesses chemical and biological weapons, which means failing to act would be unthinkable, he said.

"If this House now demands that at this moment, faced with this threat from this regime, that British troops are pulled back, that we turn away at the point of reckoning, and that is what it means, what then?

"What will Saddam feel? Strengthened beyond measure. What will the other states who tyrannize their people, the terrorists who threaten our existence, what will they take from that? That the will confronting them is decaying and feeble."

Shortly before Blair addressed the Commons, the rebellion in his Labour caucus was underlined with the resignation of two junior ministers, who joined party heavyweight Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary, in walking out of cabinet.

John Denham, who was Home Office minister, said he decided to quit because a pre-emptive strike demands a higher level of international support, which Britain and the U.S. do not have.

"This isolation has a real cost and a real danger," he said. "It undermines the legitimacy we must maintain to tackle the many threats to global security. It fuels the movements that are antipathetic to our values and way of life."

Junior health minister Lord Hunt also resigned.

Denham attacked the Bush administration, saying it undermined Blair's efforts to get a second resolution authorizing the use of force at the U.N.

"He (Blair) has been ill-served by those he sought to influence by a U.S. administration that has seemed, at times, to delight in stressing its disdain for international opinion," he added.

"Does anyone doubt that a nation of such power, such influence and in many ways, such authority, could not have built the support we needed if they had thought it necessary to do so."

The last time Blair asked the Commons for support on Iraq, 122 Labour MPs voted against his handling of the crisis.

He was never in any danger of losing the vote because he had the support of Conservative Leader Iain Duncan Smith, who said his party was behind Blair because it was in Britain's national interest.

"In turning back, we would widen splits within NATO, stir up isolationism in the United States and abandon our allies in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Australia and Eastern Europe," he added.

"Above all we would strip the U.N. of its authority, betray our own national interest and send out an unmistakable signal both to Saddam Hussein, and to every rogue state and terrorist group in the world, that we lack the will to enforce just demands on tyrannical regimes."

Blair's cause was also helped in some Labour circles by International Affairs Secretary Clare Short, who decided to vote with the government after threatening to quit cabinet 10 days ago.

Short said she had written her resignation statement, but decided to stay at the last minute because she thought she could be an integral part of the humanitarian effort that will be needed in Iraq after war.

Blair appealed to the dissidents in his party to rally behind him because facing down the threat from Saddam "will determine the way Britain and the world confront the central security threat of the 21st century."

He said the diplomatic effort to disarm Iraq failed because members of the U.N. Security Council like France and Russia took away the threat of force by promising to veto any resolution backing military action.

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