Blair Stands Firm by U.S. on Iraq

Special to The Times

Readying itself militarily and politically Tuesday for war with Iraq, Britain began mobilizing its armed forces, and Prime Minister Tony Blair told a gathering of British diplomats in London that their country's place is resolutely at the side of the United States.

"The price of British influence is not that we obediently do what the U.S. asks," Blair said, "but that we do not leave the U.S. to face the tricky issues alone."

Blair was defending his unflinching support for Washington over the handling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a high-risk policy that has tied him to a Bush administration viewed with great skepticism by much of the British public -- as well as a good chunk of his own Labor Party.

Christmas polls indicated that 44% of Britons are opposed to waging war in Iraq, with 36% in favor. And some of Blair's senior ministers have become worried that they are being dragged into a conflict without compelling evidence that Hussein still possesses weapons of mass destruction.

But Blair showed no hesitancy Tuesday, sending Defense Minister Geoff Hoon to the lower house of Parliament, the House of Commons, to announce an initial mobilization of 1,500 reservists, most of them likely to be medical and communications specialists.

Hoon also ordered the beefing up of a naval task force capable of being swiftly moved from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf later this month.

That amphibious force will be led by the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and include a nuclear-powered submarine and 14 other ships, from minesweepers to landing craft, destroyers and a hospital ship.

It will carry 3,000 Royal Marine commandos, Hoon said, all part of a strategy to show Hussein that Britain "means business."

Minutes later, Blair took the podium in London for a conference on coordinating Britain's overseas handling of the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

He dismissed the outbreaks of anti-Americanism in Britain and other parts of the world as a "foolish indulgence," insisting that the United States "is a force for good." It is still, he told the British foreign officers, "massively in our self-interest to remain close allies."

But that message was coupled with a nod to the widespread sense in Britain that, as Blair put it, "people want Washington to listen back." He said he would use his influence with President Bush to urge the administration to engage with issues the rest of the world cares about, from fighting global poverty to negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And Blair assured his audience that he would "never commit British troops to a war I thought was wrong or unnecessary."

"It is an argument designed to reassure a nervous Labor Party and a nervous country," said Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

In recent days, Blair's ministers have emphasized that a military buildup does not mean war is inevitable -- but rather makes war less likely.

The mobilization of troops is merely a prudent preparation for the "contingency" of war, Hoon said Tuesday. "Whilst we want Saddam Hussein to disarm voluntarily, it is evident that we will not achieve this unless we continue to present him with a clear and credible threat of force," he said.

Not all Labor lawmakers were so sure.

"Yes, I know we are saying this is a contingency deployment," said Donald Anderson, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons and remains a cautious supporter of Blair. "But it would be nice to hear from the U.S. administration that they see this as just a contingency deployment too, rather than allowing all this momentum for a war to build.

"What do we do if [chief U.N. inspector Hans] Blix says he's found nothing? On the face of it, Saddam would have disarmed. Clearly, we would be in difficulty."

Blair's advisors are aware of the danger. Government officials have begun suggesting that the issue of controlling weapons of mass destruction does not depend solely on whether Hussein poses an imminent threat to others.

Instead, they have begun arguing that there is a link between disarming Hussein and the wider war against the Al Qaeda network and terrorism.

On Monday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said "rogue regimes" such as Iraq are the most likely source for terrorists seeking the most terrifying weapons, a point Blair made in Tuesday's speech as well.

Nuclear proliferation is "a real, active threat to our security," the prime minister said. "It is only a matter of time before terrorists get hold of it."

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