- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

LONDON Prime Minister Tony Blair has enlisted an old friend to help sell his tough policy on Iraq to critics within his governing Labor Party when they convene for their annual conference this weekend former President Bill Clinton.

The five-day conference in Blackpool, which opens Sunday, is shaping up to be a major test for Mr. Blair, who already is struggling to sell his policy to a skeptical public.

Scores of Labor Party members of Parliament oppose military action against Baghdad, and some members of his Cabinet are threatening to resign if Britain goes to war against Iraq.

The prime minister is hoping that at least some of them will be swayed by Mr. Clinton, who is expected to praise Mr. Blair's tough stand against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in a major address to thousands of delegates at the conference.

Mr. Clinton, in an article for a special magazine put out for conference delegates, conceded that his "good friend Tony" has "plenty of critics," but said he found it "strange that some on the left [of the Labor Party] join in with a relish."

The critics include at least 133 Laborites among the more than 160 members of Parliament who have signed a motion against Britain participating in a war against Iraq.

These lawmakers are among leading anti-war rebels drumming up support for a peace march and mass rally in London tomorrow the day before the conference begins.

At the conference, Mr. Blair is expected to face at least one vote on whether Britain should back U.S.-led military action to destroy Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and depose its leader in a "regime change."

"My bet is that [the debate] will be quite comprehensive," Labor Party General Secretary David Triesman told reporters. "It will deal with Iraq and what sort of intervention is appropriate."

In addition to recalcitrant parliamentarians, Mr. Blair faces growing opposition at the party's grass-roots level.

When the Times of London surveyed the chairmen of Labor's 100 most marginal seats across the country, only five of the 70 who responded gave unequivocal support to a military campaign.

Political observers said the key to Mr. Blair's hopes of swinging conference delegates to his side lay with him stressing intelligence reports of Iraq's buildup of chemical and biological weapons, his support for the return of weapons inspectors and, if military action is necessary, an assurance that Britain will go ahead only with U.N. approval.

At the same time, one political expert who asked not to be identified said, "Blair will have to soft-pedal the rhetoric about overthrowing Saddam Hussein. What these [Labor delegates] want to hear is that efforts are continuing to try to bring about change without going to war."

Most predict that Mr. Blair will win any conference vote on Iraq. But a strong showing by the anti-war forces could prove highly embarrassing and weaken his hand in trying to sell his policy to the public.

Recent polls indicate that Mr. Blair will find greater acceptance of a war if it is undertaken with U.N. authorization.

A survey by the MORI polling organization for Britain's ITV television showed that 71 percent of the public would back military action provided it had U.N. support although the figure drops to 49 percent in the event of British casualties.

Another poll, by the ICM organization for the Guardian newspaper, showed that 65 percent of those surveyed would back a war against Saddam Hussein if Mr. Blair's government could prove that Baghdad had acquired new chemical and biological weapons.


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