Blair braces for battle in Parliament

British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces the most important vote of his political career in the House of Commons on Tuesday when he seeks endorsement of his plan to join the U.S. in a looming war with Iraq.

Blair is expected to get a harsh grilling in Parliament from critics of his policy, which led senior minister Robin Cook to quit in protest Monday after the U.S., Britain and Spain called off diplomatic efforts to win approval of a Security Council resolution authorizing an attack.

Cook, one of the ruling Labor Party's most prominent figures, said he could not back a war that did not have the support of the UN and a majority of the British people. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Britons oppose a war without UN approval.

"I can't accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support," said Cook, who was Blair's leader in Parliament after serving as foreign secretary until 2001, when he was replaced by Jack Straw.

Straw will be among the officials in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday for a previously scheduled conference of European Union foreign ministers that is likely to highlight the EU's deep divisions over Iraq.

Later in the week, the leaders of the 15 European Union nations will convene for one of the union's regular summits.

Frustration with France

In Tuesday's debate in Parliament, Blair is expected to stress that he has made every effort to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

His frustration with France for opposing his efforts was evident in his written response to Cook's resignation.

"The threatened French veto set back hugely the considerable progress we were making in building consensus," Blair wrote. "I passionately believe that if the international community had stayed rock solid in its determination and unity around Resolution 1441, Saddam could have finally been disarmed without a shot being fired."

The prime minister's policy received a legal endorsement Monday when Lord Goldsmith, Britain's attorney general, said a new Security Council resolution was not needed to justify military action against Iraq because existing resolutions dating back to 1990 allowed the use of force.

Blair probably will retain the support of a majority of his fellow Labor lawmakers, and he can depend on the votes of the opposition Conservatives.

Still, the rebellion from his own party is the worst crisis he has faced since becoming prime minister in 1997. Opposition within the Labor Party could cost him his job if casualties are high in an Iraq war.

Blair's support for a U.S.-led military strike to disarm Iraq has set the centrist leader against much of his party, including Labor's left wing, which is particularly unhappy with Blair's support for a Republican U.S. president.

Last month, 122 Labor members of Parliament--nearly 30 percent of the party's delegation-- voted against Blair's stand on Iraq. Rebels in Blair's ruling party say that number could rise by 40 this time.

In a surprise development Monday, International Development Secretary Clare Short opted not to resign despite widespread expectations that she would quit after criticizing Blair's Iraq policy as "reckless." Short was considering her future but remained in the Cabinet, aides said.

This week's EU meetings of foreign ministers and heads of state are supposed to deal with such matters as the Middle East, the Balkans and the EU's ambitious goal of becoming the world's most economically competitive region by 2010.

But with war looming in Iraq, attention is likely to focus again on the divisions that have dealt a serious blow to the organization's stated goal of achieving a common foreign policy.

`Feelings are pretty hard'

"The scale of the wreckage is pretty immense," said Gareth Evans, a former Australian former minister who is now director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "The gulfs are pretty wide, and the feelings are pretty hard."

Romano Prodi, head of the European Commission, expressed regret that the Security Council could not reach a consensus.

"This is a grave and difficult moment for the international community," said Prodi, the former Italian prime minister who runs the sprawling bureaucracy that enforces EU regulations. "We have consistently argued that if war were to be waged, it should be up to the UN to authorize the decision to attack. We must all work together to reduce potential long-term damage to the United Nations."

An emergency EU summit on Iraq last month agreed on a joint statement urging that nation to disarm, but that was widely seen as papering over huge differences between the British-led, pro-U.S. camp--which includes Spain and Portugal--and the anti-war states, led by France.

Vagueness expected

One European foreign policy expert predicted this week's meetings would produce the same kind of vague statement.

"Generally the European process is such that when there are divisions, they fudge," said Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States in Paris.

With the prospect of war hovering over the meetings, he said, now is not the time for the EU to begin to repair relations among its members.

"We have to get beyond this issue," he said.

A British diplomat confirmed that Blair, Straw and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown expect to attend the summit, but no meetings between Blair and French President Jacques Chirac had been scheduled as of Monday.