- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2003

LONDON, March 11 (UPI) — There was consternation in London government circles Tuesday following remarks by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that British troops might not fight against Iraq, leaving the United States to go to war alone.

Addressing reporters at a Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld said British Prime Minister Tony Blair's political troubles raised questions whether British forces now in the Persian Gulf would actually go into battle.

"To the extent that (the British) are able to participate, in the event that the president decides to use force, that would obviously be welcomed," Rumsfeld said. "To the extent they're not, there are workarounds and they would not be involved, at least in that phase of it."

Rumsfeld also noted that it would up to President Bush to decide whether the United States actually did fight alone. But British commentators noted the Pentagon actually had contingency plans for U.S. troops fighting without the British.

Within an hour, the Pentagon issued what was said to be a clarification of Rumsfeld's remarks. In the event of a war with Iraq, the Pantagon quoted him as saying, "We have every reason to believe that there will be a significant military contribution from the United Kingdom."

But observers said Rumsfeld had provided a glimpse of the tensions that have recently emerged between the two allies.

The British Labor government has already committed around 45,000 troops to the Persian Gulf, some 25,000 of them in Kuwait, in anticipation of a possible war against Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld's comments were the first public hint they might not go into battle alongside the U.S. troops.

Instead, he hinted their role could be limited to humanitarian work and helping to rebuild Iraq after the fighting.

A Downing Street official denied British military participation in an eventual Iraq offensive was in any doubt. And Jeremy Greenstock, the British representative to the United Nations, said, "If military action is the only way to complete disarmament of Iraq, then my prime minister has made it absolutely clear that he will go that route."

But an official close to Blair, quoted by the London Times, declared that differences of emphasis were emerging between Britain and the United States over how to resolve the Iraq crisis.

"We have always said that Saddam can avoid war by disarming, but if he was to comply … it would be fair to say that such action would not be welcome in some parts of the U.S. administration," the official said. He was referring to the widespread belief that the Bush administration is determined to remove Saddam, by force if necessary.

Blair has from the start been Bush's staunchest ally in the administration's campaign to force Saddam to disarm. He has supported the Bush administration's military option against Iraq, but has recently stepped up his insistence that war ought to be a last resort.

This is because he has come under increasing pressure from his own party not to go to war, or at least not without U.N. approval. Recent polls show that public support for British involvement in a military operation against Iraq without the support of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for disarmament or war has slumped to around 19 percent. With U.N. approval, the rate jumps up to about 75 percent.

The United States plans to press this week for a vote in the council on a resolution that would authorize force any time after March 17 if Iraq fails to start disarming in earnest. But the proposal is considered dead in the water because France and Russia — both permanent members of the Security Council with the power of veto — have said they will oppose it.

Britain has been working feverishly on a new draft that, Blair hopes, will gain the required minimum of nine votes in the 15-member council — and no vetoes. The British want to extend the March 17 disarmament deadline to at least the end of the month, and establish three or more tests that will indicate that Saddam is in compliance with an earlier U.N. demand to disarm.

The Bush administration is willing to concede a few extra days, but not as many as the British government feels would win over undecided council members. And U.S. sources say they are not sold on the tests of Saddam's good intentions either.

Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday, "There is room for a little more diplomacy, but not a lot of room to do it. The vote will take place this week." But he added: "The president continues to think it's time to bring this to a conclusion."

Without significant concessions of extra time for the U.N. weapons inspectors to continue their search for weapons of mass destruction, the resolution stands no chance of passing. In that case, Bush is determined to go ahead with plans for an attack without the backing of the United Nations. If Blair follows suit, as he has vowed to do, some analysts feel it would be political suicide.

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(With reporting by Pamela Hess and Eli J. Lake)

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