- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that the detention of British nationals without trial at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is “an anomaly” that “at some point has got to be brought to an end.”

Mr. Blair, President Bush’s closest ally in the war in Iraq, also acknowledged — under sharp questions from lawmakers in the House of Commons — that coalition forces had failed to find Saddam Hussein’s suspected weapons of mass destruction “and we may not find them.”

The British prime minister insisted Saddam was a threat who had to be stopped and strongly defended his close alliance with the United States. But his comments reflected the intense political pressure he faces in the aftermath of the war.

“I am not daft about the politics” of having close ties to Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair said. Mr. Bush is deeply unpopular in Britain, particularly among members of Mr. Blair’s ruling Labor Party.

“But I don’t think this country should ever let itself be ashamed of its relationship with the United States of America or believe that Britain is America’s poodle.”

Mr. Bush, asked in Washington about Mr. Blair’s comments on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, insisted that “the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.”

“He was a threat to the neighborhood, he was a threat to the people of Iraq. He harbored terrorists,” Mr. Bush said.

The Guantanamo Bay detentions have been a problem for Mr. Blair, who has appealed directly to Mr. Bush about four British nationals being held without trial at the U.S. military base on the eastern tip of Cuba.

British Attorney General Peter Goldsmith, the government’s top legal adviser, said last week in a speech that the British government was “unable to accept” that the planned U.S. military tribunals for the Guantanamo prisoners would guarantee a fair trial.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. government has moved to address the concerns of Britain and other nations about the treatment of foreign nationals at Guantanamo. Many detainees — including five British citizens — already have been sent home, while military tribunals and regular reviews have been established for those still in the camp.

Mr. Boucher said Mr. Bush also has “made clear to Prime Minister Blair that if the legal mechanisms that we put in place are not adequate, then the British could request the return of those people.”

The weapons of mass destruction issue also has been a sore point for Mr. Blair, who heavily based his decision to go to war on the perceived threat from Saddam’s arsenal.

Edward Leigh, a member of the opposition Conservative Party, told Mr. Blair, “The fact is, we went to war for the wrong reasons.”

Mr. Blair would not concede that the war was misguided or that Saddam’s arsenal had been overstated. The nuclear, biological and chemical weapons stocks “could have been removed, could have been hidden, could have been destroyed,” he said.

“I have to accept that we have not found, and we may not find them,” he said.

Mr. Blair faced repeated charges that Britain’s close relations with the Bush administration had hurt the country’s ties with leading European powers and other allies.

Mr. Blair countered, “Most countries would give their eye teeth for that relationship, and it is a shame that [in Britain] it is somehow seen as a sign of mockery.”

Joseph Curl contributed to this report.

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