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Blair Lands on a BBC Hot Seat

British leader is interrogated about Iraq by hostile interviewer and audience.

February 07, 2003|Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writer

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair faced a hostile television interviewer and audience Thursday night and told them he was determined to see through the disarmament of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime.

"We are all in common that Saddam has to disarm," he said of the international community. "We're all in common that the [weapons] inspectors are the best way to do it. We're all in common also that if the inspectors can't do it, it's going to have to be done by force."

Appearing on BBC2 television's "Newsnight" in a special broadcast from the city of Newcastle, Blair was quizzed first by Jeremy Paxman, one of the network's toughest interviewers.

The prime minister then fielded questions from Paxman and the audience on issues such as why Britain wasn't continuing a policy of containing and deterring Iraq through sanctions, whether he would continue to hang on "Mr. Bush's shirttails," how much greater the threat of terrorism might be if there was an armed conflict and whether he would go to war without the support of the British people.

He confronted cynicism from Paxman about evidence from U.S. intelligence that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction and accusations from the audience of hypocrisy in his demonization of Iraq above other "rogue" nations.

"I totally understand the argument about whether the war is right or wrong and I understand the concerns," Blair said. "But the one thing I hope we can agree is that Saddam Hussein is in a different category from virtually any other regime in the world in terms of his use of appalling oppression against his own people, external oppression against other people."

Helen Bradby, a secretary in the audience, asked why Britain didn't stick to a policy of trying to "contain and deter" Iraq and said she was "concerned that we're following the U.S. along a line of conflict and war, and I don't understand why."

The containment method of imposing sanctions on Iraq, allowing it to sell oil only to pay for humanitarian supplies, has proved to be a "brutal policy" that works against the Iraqi people, Blair said. "We were finding that about $3 billion worth was being leeched away through illicit sales of the oil."

Weapons inspections during the 1990s also failed to deter Iraq, he said.

Blair noted that "there were people who wanted to go to war last year" but that he had supported another round of inspections -- backed with the threat of "serious consequences" if Hussein failed to disarm. Inspectors now need time to make a judgment as to whether Iraq was cooperating -- something Hussein's regime is not doing "at the moment," he said.

A skeptical Paxman demanded on behalf of his audience: "Will you give an undertaking to this audience and indeed to the British people that before any military action you will seek another U.N. resolution specifically authorizing the use of force?"

Blair replied, "Those are the only circumstances in which we would agree to use force except for one caveat." That would be, he explained, a veto exercised by one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that "unreasonably" blocked the necessary unanimous vote. "But I don't believe we'll get to the stage of vetoes," he added.

The Security Council passed a resolution in November calling on Iraq to disarm.

The United States, Britain, France, China and Russia are the permanent members with veto power.

Sarcasm crept into the interview. One questioner called the prime minister "the right honorable member [of Parliament] for north Texas" and "Mr. Vice President."

Asked audience member Ian Davison: "Since Sept. 11, obviously, the United States has been aggressive to Afghanistan and Iraq. Where does it stop and who's next, and does it mean we'll be tagging along on Mr. Bush's shirttails all the time?" Blair responded that after the Sept. 11 attacks, "we couldn't have taken a back seat."

"We live in an interdependent world. Terrorists are operating in France, they're operating in Sweden ... Italy, in countries that haven't taken a high profile," Blair said, adding that it is a matter of time before weapons of mass destruction fall into the hands of terrorists.

"I have never said that Iraq is about to launch an attack on Britain, but if you look at the history of Saddam Hussein, I think that there is absolutely no doubt at all that he poses a threat to his region," Blair said. "If he was to use chemical, nuclear or biological weapons in the rest of his region, there is no way Britain could stand aside from that."

Blair was told bluntly by one audience member, "I don't share any confidence that people are behind you at the moment."

"If there were a second U.N. resolution, then people would be behind me," Blair said, "but I think if there's not, then there's a lot of persuading to do."

During the afternoon, Defense Minister Geoff Hoon outlined to Parliament plans for further military deployment in the gulf region. About 7,000 personnel and 100 aircraft will be dispatched in "days and weeks ahead," he said.

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