Britain Mulls Compromise on Iraq Deadline
LONDON (AP) _ Prime Minister Tony Blair, struggling to head off a growing revolt within his party over his hardline Iraq policy, said Monday that Britain was discussing a compromise deadline for Saddam Hussein to disarm.
The prime minister was surprised by International Development Secretary Clare Short’s announcement that she might quit and by her stinging criticism of his stance on Iraq, Blair’s spokesman said.
The threat from Short _ who called Blair’s handling of the Iraq standoff ``extraordinarily reckless″ _ made clear the painful political consequences the prime minister may face if he leads Britain to war without international support.
Only a small segment of the public _ 15 percent, according to the latest poll _ would sanction such an offensive without U.N. Security Council authorization.
Blair has avoided saying what he would do if the U.N. does not authorize military action. But Washington has said it would go to war without U.N. backing, and it was widely expected that Britain would back the United States.
Some 40,000 British troops are alongside U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. Blair has the authority to launch military operations, and there is no immediate threat to his leadership.
During a television forum with women opposed to war, Blair was asked whether he was committed to the March 17 deadline for Iraq to prove it is disarming, as Britain, America and Spain have proposed.
``We are in discussion with other countries now. We have laid it down because we believe that gives enough time for him to show that he’s fully cooperating,″ he said. ``But the very reason why we are talking to people is to try to find a way through that brings the U.N. together.″
Other Cabinet ministers criticized Short harshly for speaking out. Senior members of the government are expected to adhere to the government line in public, even if they privately disagree.
Health Secretary Alan Milburn told British Broadcasting Corp. radio on Monday that he was puzzled Short spoke out ``at the very time when everybody in the government is working so hard _ particularly the prime minister himself _ to secure precisely the second U.N. resolution that Clare wants to see.″
Opposition to war without U.N. endorsement is particularly strong within Labor. Last month, 122 party lawmakers staged their biggest rebellion since Blair came to power in 1997 by voting for a motion that said the case for war was ``unproven.″
Such protests are likely to grow stronger if the Security Council rebuffs British and U.S. efforts to win a fresh resolution and Blair joins Bush in waging war anyway.
If that happens, a growing number of Labor Party lawmakers indicated Monday they would defy their leadership.
Labor legislator Lindsay Hoyle, who abstained in last month’s vote to avoid challenging the government, said he would be compelled to oppose Blair if war comes without U.N. support.
``I know many (lawmakers) who supported the government or abstained last time who definitely will not support the government without that second resolution,″ he said. ``I am a normal loyalist supporter of the government. But there is only so far you can go.″
Labor lawmaker Andrew Reed started what could become a spate of resignations, saying Sunday that he was quitting his post as a parliamentary private secretary _ a low-level government job _ apparently over the Iraq crisis.
Press reports said four other low-ranking officials have threatened to follow suit. A Parliamentary officer for the opposition Conservative Party resigned Monday to protest his party’s support for Blair on Iraq.
Blair’s spokesman declined to say whether Short would be dismissed. He added that Blair spoke by phone Monday with chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. The two discussed unresolved disarmament issues, which Blair feels could form the basis for a compromise resolution with a tight deadline, the spokesman said.