- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

LONDON The British public, which has firmly backed Prime Minister Tony Blair in the first phase of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, is far more reluctant to go along with his drive for action against Iraq.

In Parliament, more than 100 members of Mr. Blair's Labor Party have signed a document expressing their "unease" over British military involvement, with at least one Cabinet member threatening to resign if it goes ahead.

Political sources said Mr. Blair's government is putting the final touches on a dossier that he intends to present to President Bush at their summit in Texas next month, outlining in detail British intelligence assessments of Iraq's development of nuclear munitions and other weapons of mass destruction.

The British prime minister has stationed himself firmly alongside the Americans in their war against terrorism, and the British public from the start has overwhelmingly supported the battle to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists from Afghanistan.

But cracks in public opinion surfaced in the latest survey for the Guardian by the British polling firm ICM:

"Would you approve or disapprove of Britain backing American military action against Iraq?" pollsters asked 1,001 voters.

About 35 percent approved, and 51 percent disapproved.

If anything, British popular opposition to military action to topple Saddam is hardening the longer Mr. Blair remains in power.

Similar opinion surveys three years ago and again last year showed a majority of voters approved the idea of U.S.-led strikes against Iraq.

The prime minister is also having difficulty persuading the rest of Europe to target Saddam.

At a just-concluded summit in Barcelona, European leaders made it clear they were not interested in joining a U.S.-Britain campaign against Iraq at least not at this time.

Going to war is never a popular course in today's Europe, and particularly this year in Germany, France, Sweden and the Netherlands, where governments face elections.

Mr. Blair caught the full force of that sentiment, prompting his sour observation of the summit: "A joy, as ever."

At home, the prime minister is getting grief from his own ruling Labor Party. In addition to the 100-plus Labor legislators signaling their "unease" over the prospects of going to war in Iraq, one Cabinet minister Clare Short, the secretary for international development has dismissed the prospect as "unwise" and hinted she may quit.

One political source said she "may not be the last to go," referring to other members of Mr. Blair's Cabinet, if shooting starts in Iraq.

Earlier, Mr. Blair's home secretary, David Blunkett, said he feared that if London declared war on Iraq, it could spark ethnic riots across Britain.

Paradoxically, however, the Iraq issue is unlikely to pose much of a political threat to Mr. Blair at least for the time being because his main opposition, the Conservative Party behind new leader Iain Duncan Smith, has gone on record favoring attacks against Baghdad and Saddam.

But the Conservatives' alliance with Mr. Blair over Iraq does not extend necessarily to Afghanistan. Mr. Duncan Smith demanded and got the first emergency debate in the House of Commons in nine years, for a "full discussion" over a recent decision to dispatch 1,700 British combat troops to Afghanistan.


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