- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

LONDON, March 17 (UPI) — British Prime Minister Tony Blair was hit Monday by his first cabinet resignation over his pro-war stance on Iraq with the resignation of Robin Cook as the government's leader in the House of Commons.

Cook stepped down minutes before an emergency cabinet meeting at the prime minister's Downing Street office. His resignation centered on his doubts about the legality of launching any war against Iraq without approval by a U.N. resolution.

"It is with regret that I have today resigned from the cabinet," Cook said in a brief statement. "I can't accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support."

"Robin Cook met the prime minister before cabinet and has resigned from the government," a spokesman for Blair said. The now ex-leader of the house quickly left Downing Street to attend a parliamentary session for a statement on Iraq by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Cook, himself a one-time foreign minister in Blair's first administration and Straw's predecessor, has made clear for week his reservations about going to war alongside the United States against Iraq, particularly without specific approval from the U.N. Security Council.

The United States, Britain and Spain on Monday called off their efforts to secure Security Council approval, a move that appeared to all but end diplomatic efforts to avoid conflict and to open the way for war, possibly this week.

Cook's resignation might not be the last from Blair's cabinet over the Iraq crisis. Clare Short, Blair's secretary for international development, described the prime minister's pro-war stance as "deeply reckless" recently and threatened to quit if Britain went to war without a new U.N. resolution.

However, Short attended the emergency cabinet session that Cook chose to avoid by quitting, and government sources said Blair wanted to persuade her to stay on to spearhead the humanitarian aid effort that inevitably will follow a war in Iraq.

Political sources said Blair summoned the cabinet members to brief them on the results of Sunday's emergency summit in the Azores on the Iraq crisis and advise them of what to expect when President George W. Bush addressed the United States on Monday night.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said ahead of Bush's address that Bush would deliver an ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to get out of Iraq or war would begin.

Cook's resignation served to highlight Blair's growing problems over Iraq. More than 120 members of Parliament from Blair's own ruling Labor Party have rebelled against him, and that number was expected to grow to 160 or more at a new debate over the crisis expected in Parliament this week, possibly Tuesday.

Political sources said some members of Parliament intend to submit an amendment stating their conviction that war against Iraq cannot be justified without a new U.N. resolution.

However, Blair would be expected to safely maneuver around such a protest because the main opposition Conservative Party has solidly endorsed his pro-war stand and has signaled it will support Blair in any parliamentary vote on the issue.

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