- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair defied criticism over Iraq that has pummeled his approval ratings, telling members of his Labor Party yesterday he “would take the same decision again” if given a second chance.

He also stressed the importance to Britain of standing alongside the United States and influencing its global policies.

In the last few weeks Mr. Blair’s popularity ratings have plummeted to their lowest ebb since a year before the September 11 attacks.

Since Saddam Hussein’s ouster, Mr. Blair has become increasingly weighed down by assertions of deceit over the intelligence information he possessed and the absence of postwar stability in Iraq.

Yesterday he battled back at the annual conference of his ruling Labor Party.

Winning an unexpectedly warm reception from his party faithful, including a two-minute standing ovation before he even began his speech, Mr. Blair admitted the divisions brought by his decision to go to war.

“Iraq has divided the international community. It has divided the party, the country, families, friends,” he said.

“I ask just one thing: Attack my decision but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again.”

He pressed a key contention that has united him with President Bush: There is a growing link between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

“There was no easy choice. So whatever we, each of us, thought, let us agree on this: We who started the war must finish the peace,” Mr. Blair said.

“Why do I stay fighting to keep in there with America on the one hand and Europe on the other? Because I know terrorism can’t be defeated unless America and Europe work together. And it’s not so much American unilateralism I fear. It’s isolation; it’s walking away when we need America there engaged.”

In words reminiscent of a previous prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, the British leader said, “I do not have a reverse gear. I can only go forward.”

Mrs. Thatcher, who famously declared, “The lady’s not for turning,” led the now-opposition Conservative Party to three election victories, something Mr. Blair is aiming to emulate.

Dissent over the war has rumbled through the conference, though no debate has been permitted on the floor.

Two of Mr. Blair’s Cabinet ministers resigned to protest the invasion, and opinion polls have charted growing disillusionment with the campaign to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Defending his decision, Mr. Blair said the major threat of the 21st century is “fanaticism defeating reason.”

“Suppose the terrorists repeated September 11 or worse. Suppose they got hold of a chemical or biological or nuclear dirty bomb — and if they could, they would. What then?”

A poll released Sunday found 64 percent of Britons questioned last week said they do not trust Mr. Blair and 48 percent think he should resign.

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