- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

LONDON, March 18 (UPI) — Prime Minister Tony Blair, putting his political career on the line, defended in Parliament on Tuesday his decision to put Britain on course to war in Iraq as a tough choice but one that was necessary to resolve a crisis he said would determine international politics for generations.

In an impassioned, hour-long plea for Parliament to support his commitment of British troops to combat against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Blair said that to back away now — perhaps only hours from a shooting war — would send a dangerous message to other "tyrants" and leave Iraq's people in "pitiless terror."

The only "persuasive power" that Saddam will respond to, the prime minister said, "is 250,000 allied troops on his doorstep."

It was billed as perhaps the most important address of his political life, and Blair left no doubt as to what was at stake: the future of the United Nations, the way the world confronts the central security threat of the 21st century, and perhaps his own future as prime minister.

With British and U.S. forces poised to strike at any time, Blair said, "to retreat now … would put at hazard all that we hold dearest, turn the United Nations back into a talking shop, stifle the first steps of progress in the Middle East, leave the Iraqi people to the mercy of events on which we would have relinquished all power to influence to the better."

He then pronounced, to loud cheering from the House of Commons, that "I would not be party to such a course" — a comment that seemed to indicate he would quit if his demand for support was turned down in a parliamentary vote later Tuesday night.

That was always unlikely, even though Blair faced perhaps the biggest revolt of parliamentary members in his own ruling Labor Party in his six years in office. Those votes were lost, but the prime minister was virtually guaranteed victory by solid support of the opposition Conservative Party, backing his pro-war stance.

Blair laid out his case as the marathon debate in Parliament got under way, announcing that opting for war against Iraq was "a tough choice indeed. But it also is a stark one: to stand British troops down now and turn back, or to hold firm to the course we have set.

"I believe passionately," he said, "that we must hold firm to that course."

The battle to rid Iraq of Saddam and his regime "could hardly be more important," the prime minister said. "It will determine the pattern of international politics for the next decade."

To critics who continued to demand that U.N. arms inspectors be given more time to find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Blair replied again that Baghdad remained clearly in breach of a string of Security Council resolutions.

"Iraq has made some steps in cooperation," he conceded, "but no one disputes that it is not fully cooperating. Iraq continues to deny that it has any weapons of mass destruction, though no serious intelligence service anywhere in the world believes them.

"We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years contrary to all history and intelligence, (Saddam) decided unilaterally to destroy these weapons," Blair said. "I say such a claim is palpably absurd."

In a blast aimed at France, which said it would veto any pro-war resolution in the United Nations, he said "those who are opposed to us on the Security Council say they want Saddam to disarm but will not countenance any new resolution that authorizes force in the event of non-compliance."

When confronted by the "obvious fact" that military might is the only force to which the Iraqi leader will respond, he said, "we are told that any resolution that then authorizes force in the event of non-compliance will be vetoed."

The British leader told Parliament that "this is not the time to falter, this is the time … to show we will stand up for what we know to be right, to show we will confront the tyrannies and dictators and terrorists who put our way of life at risk."

Now is the time, Blair said, "to show that at the moment of decision, we have the courage to do the right thing."

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