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Blair's Stance on Hussein Elicits Misgivings at Home, Abroad

Europe: British leader's promise to offer proof that Iraqi leader poses a threat draws skepticism. German chancellor says he's not swayed.


LONDON — In a sign of the political battle to precede any military strike against Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday encountered resistance at home and among European neighbors to his call for ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

A day after Blair declared support for the Bush administration's campaign against Hussein, the reaction in Britain was decidedly mixed. Voters and leaders of Blair's own center-left Labor Party expressed misgivings about the prime minister's willingness to use force against Hussein.

Britain remains the closest U.S. ally, but even here polls show considerable opposition to Washington's war talk. And that sentiment is widespread throughout Europe: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder responded to Blair's speech with a sharp rebuff Wednesday.

"With all respect for Tony Blair: Just like anyone else, he will not speak for Europe alone on this issue or on others," said Schroeder, whose loud opposition to President Bush's policy on Iraq has been a centerpiece of his campaign for reelection in Germany.

"We have absolutely no reason to change our well-founded position. Under my leadership, Germany will not take part in an intervention in Iraq," Schroeder said.

Debate in Britain on Wednesday centered on Blair's promise to make the case against Iraq by presenting a dossier of evidence to support the claim that Hussein's regime is developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Critics predicted that the dossier would not produce compelling new arguments to prove the prime minister's assertion that Hussein poses "a real and unique threat" to world security.

"I have my doubts that hard evidence will be produced in time to allay the great fears that people have in this country of delivering action against Saddam Hussein," said Ian Gibson, a Labor member of Parliament.

Nonetheless, analysts said Blair, who is scheduled to meet with Bush this weekend at Camp David in Maryland, had set a new tone by emphasizing the need to seek renewed United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq.

Blair's speech was shaped by his awareness of his political difficulties at home and in Europe, one analyst said.

"He got it just about right," said Daniel Neep of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies, a think tank here. "In the United Kingdom until now, the debate had been dominated by the antiwar opposition. He made clear the need to gain international consensus."

Polls have consistently shown a reluctance in Britain to commit to a military campaign against Iraq.

A survey by the Guardian newspaper last month, for example, showed 52% of respondents opposed to using British forces in such an attack.

However, a poll taken Wednesday by GMTV, a morning television show, found that 65% of respondents would favor a war--if evidence showed that Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction.

Advocates of an aggressive stance toward Iraq urged Blair to use his skills as a politician and orator to combat the prevailing mood of reluctance at home and elsewhere in Europe.

"Mr. Blair is well aware that his own party has grave doubts about declaring war on Iraq, that opinion polls indicate profound public skepticism and that the rest of Europe opposes toppling Saddam," the conservative Daily Telegraph said in an editorial. "Yet it is not merely right but imperative for him to swim against this tide.... He needs to do more to flush out and defeat what he rightly calls 'just straightforward anti-Americanism.' "

Anti-Americanism is certainly widespread in Europe--both among the public and many government officials--and is fed by the Bush administration's campaign against Iraq.

In addition, critics fear that an invasion of Iraq would produce chaos and carnage in a region already unsettled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Islamic terrorism.

"The dangers are ... that there would be massive destruction and casualties, which would infuriate the Arab world," said Tam Dalyell, a veteran Labor member of Parliament.

France, a major military and political force in Europe, has stopped short of Germany's adamant antiwar statements. Instead, the French have insisted that every effort be made to return U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq--they left in 1998--and that a U.N. Security Council vote be held before any military action by an international coalition.

President Jacques Chirac repeated that position Wednesday.

The center-right governments of Spain and Italy tend to be pro-American and are likely, at a minimum, to allow the use of bases in their territory for an attack.

Whatever the inclination of the governments, public opinion on the continent seems resolutely against the idea of a "preemptive" Anglo-American operation without U.N. approval or a well-articulated explanation of the threat posed by Iraq.

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