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Blair Urges Bush to Put Iraq War on Hold

TONY BLAIR, British prime minister, is urging US President George W Bush to delay any war against Iraq until the autumn to give UN weapons inspectors more time to obtain clear evidence of Saddam Hussein's secret attempt to build up an illegal arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
Blair Urges Bush to Put Iraq War on Hold
By Bill Jacobs Westminster Editor
Edinburgh News

Thursday 9 January 2003

"Labour MPs don't trust George Bush and wonder why Tony is so close to him."

TONY BLAIR is urging US President George W Bush to delay any war against Iraq until the autumn to give UN weapons inspectors more time to obtain clear evidence of Saddam Hussein's secret attempt to build up an illegal arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

The Prime Minister believes a spring offensive would be premature and would not get the support of the United Nations Security Council.

Mr Blair is stressing to President Bush this would leave the UK and United States isolated and could cause him problems with Labour MPs and public opinion at home.

Up to 100 Labour backbenchers are ready to rebel and vote against the Government if the war starts without UN backing. And some junior ministers are understood to be ready to resign if that is the case.

The diplomatic moves come as UN chief weapons instructor Hans Blix makes an interim progress report to the Security Council today on the inspections.

He is expected to repeat his statement that there was little new in the massive Iraqi dossier.

And President Bush has put back his State of the Union Message by a week so it comes a day after Mr Blix's first full-scale assessment of Saddam's programme to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons due on January 27.

Speculation in Washington is that this would allow the President to use his highest profile national speech to make his intentions clear.

It has been expected that if the UK and US do go to war, they would do it in the spring before the heat makes military action impossible.

But now Mr Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw are urging Washington to hold off till the autumn. They feel that with the weapons inspectors in Iraq and the massive military build-up in the Gulf, Saddam can pose little threat over the summer.

And they believe that given "time and space" the inspectors would be able to build up a convincing case for military action which would get the backing of the UN Security Council, going some way to keeping the Muslim world calm.

One senior Whitehall source said: "The Prime Minister has made it clear that unless there is a smoking gun the inspectors have to be given time to keep searching."

Some British sources also believe the delay would increase the pressure on Saddam and give time for the Iraqi opposition or even some of Saddam's aides to prepare for some sort of government to follow if he were deposed.

One Cabinet minister underlined the growing case for delay, saying: "At the moment there is no justification for going to war and the whole Cabinet feels that way."

British officials hope President Bush will pay attention to the British case and ignore the hardliners in Washington who believe that Iraq's claim to have no banned weapons is justification for an early war.

However, Mr Blair - who yesterday denied at Prime Minister's Questions that he was indulging in "dangerous brinkmanship" - has problems with his own party.

More than 150 MPs stayed behind to hear Linlithgow backbencher Tam Dalyell make a failed bid for an emergency debate on any Iraq conflict. He said British forces were entitled to proof of the "settled and overwhelming conviction of their fellow countrymen that the cause is just".

One influential moderate summed the growing rebellion up simply saying: "The mood has hardened over Christmas.

"Labour MPs don't trust George Bush and wonder why Tony is so close to him."

Meanwhile the Government issued a sharp warning to oil companies today to avoid any "irresponsible" petrol price rises.

Energy Minister Brian Wilson said there was no justification for a petrol price hike, as the Opec oil-producing countries were expected to increase production to keep oil prices in their 22 to 28 dollar-a-barrel target range.

He expressed concern that reports that petrol prices were set to rise, due to the fears of a war with Iraq and the turmoil in Venezuela, would become a "self-fulfilling prophecy".

Pakistani police working with the FBI today arrested three suspected al-Qaida members after a shoot-out in Karachi.

Officials said the men, who had been under surveillance, threw a grenade at security forces, but no officers were hurt.

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