- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

LONDON — The ruling Labor Party opened its annual meeting yesterday with elections looming next year, the opposition gaining favor in polls and Prime Minister Tony Blair eager to head off a rebuke over Iraq from his party’s left wing.

Mr. Blair’s advisers think they can avoid a resolution that calls for the government to withdraw British troops from Iraq. In return, they may have to accept a resolution acknowledging the government took the country to war based on faulty intelligence.

The internal dispute over Iraq — often spilling out into acrimony and resignations — has cost both the Labor Party and Mr. Blair in opinion polls.

Three polls over the weekend suggested that the government could be struggling by the time Mr. Blair goes to the public for a third mandate sometime next year, with two polls showing the opposition Conservative Party marginally ahead. Mr. Blair could call the election as early as next spring, but could wait into early 2006.

The threat by Islamic extremists to behead British construction engineer Kenneth Bigley, whose ordeal has riveted the nation, also has encouraged resentment against the war in Iraq and the prime minister’s support of it.

Mr. Blair desperately wants to avoid having Iraq become the top election issue.

For the party to retain its large majority in Parliament, Mr. Blair’s advisers say, Labor must refocus the debate on domestic issues such as the economy and its claim to have improved health services, policing and education.

Seeking to defuse anger among the party’s center-left members of Parliament and its hard-line party activists, Mr. Blair made his most explicit apology for some of the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction on which he based his justification for war to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.

“Some of the information was wrong and I have apologized,” he told a television interviewer over the weekend. “But I’m not going to say sorry for getting rid of Saddam himself.” Indeed, at a joint appearance last week with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Mr. Blair portrayed the British role in Iraq as one of valiant and unflinching resistance against terrorist forces.

Iraq, he said, was the “crucible” for the anti-Western drive by extremists, and any retreat would endanger Britain and Western civilization.

Elaborating on that theme, he told the Observer newspaper yesterday that the battle was akin to World War II — a comparison that angered many war veterans.

Mr. Blair argued that people could have said in 1942 that the world was less peaceful than in 1938, the year before the outbreak of the war in Europe. But if Britain and its allies had not fought Hitler, he said, the final outcome would have been far worse.

“I’m not the wobbling sort,” Mr. Blair told a television interviewer.

Weekend surveys of the public’s perception of their prime minister raised some surprises. Despite his travails over Iraq, Mr. Blair’s honesty rating has risen since 2001.

At his most popular in 1996, 36 percent considered Mr. Blair “more honest than most politicians.” That rating dropped to 25 percent in 2001, but has climbed again to 29 percent, the Independent on Sunday newspaper reported.

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