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WAR WITH IRAQ / DIPLOMACY

Despite High Losses, Little Outcry From Britons

After deep opposition to an invasion of Iraq, a growing pro-war mood has shifted opinion polls toward British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

March 25, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Although British troops account for less than a quarter of the coalition forces fighting in Iraq, they have suffered disproportionately high losses in the early days of the war.

A British soldier died Monday in combat south of Basra. The loss followed the weekend deaths of the crew of a Royal Air Force Tornado warplane downed by a U.S. Patriot missile in a friendly-fire mishap and of Britons in two helicopter crashes. The fighting has resulted in 17 British deaths, compared with 24 in the 1991 Gulf War. Americans, who make up the bulk of the coalition forces, have had a few more deaths in the fighting.

Despite serious opposition in London to the decision to invade Iraq, the casualties have not led to major criticism. If anything, a growing pro-war mood has shifted opinion polls in recent days toward British Prime Minister Tony Blair. His progress report on the war to Parliament on Monday got a generally supportive response from legislators who had lambasted his Iraq policy only two weeks ago.

When British troops go into action, the patriotic, let's-get-this-done-with instincts of Britons tend to kick in. The long conflict in Northern Ireland accustomed the public to combat fatalities.

The relentless media coverage of the war has been marked by the swashbuckling, pro-government tone of tabloid newspapers that don't hesitate to call Saddam Hussein a "tyrant" in large, bold headlines.

Nonstop television coverage has changed public perceptions on a crucial point that had driven the antiwar movement: Once fearful of a slaughter of innocent Iraqis, Britons now believe the military campaign is trying hard to spare civilians.

"Antiwar demonstrators increasingly give the impression of speaking to each other rather than reaching out to the wider public," said Anthony King, a professor at the University of Essex, commenting on a recent poll by the Daily Telegraph newspaper. "America and Britain have made much of their desire to avoid large-scale casualties among ordinary Iraqis and it seems the great majority of the British public now give them credit for making the effort."

Nonetheless there is ambivalence, an unease that results from a basic internal conflict. The presence of British troops has reinforced the staunch Anglo-American alliance. Yet Britain remains European in many ways; many Britons share with Europeans an overwhelming doubt about the war.

The British government has estimated that the war could cost $5 billion, adding to worries about budget strains and neglected public services such as health and transportation.

Dissident voices persist, and they are honed with quintessentially British sarcasm and wit.

The war "does make one want to vomit, frankly," said Tam Dalyell, a Labor member of Parliament, on a radio program.

And in the Independent newspaper Monday, columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown declared: "If they elected a monkey as president of the United States, Tony Blair would ingratiate himself and do its bidding."

Blair, who warned Parliament about "difficult days ahead," and his aides have tried to sound optimistic while readying the public for more pain.

Many Britons waited uneasily for news about two British soldiers missing in southern Iraq since their Land Rover was ambushed Sunday. British forces were searching the desert for the two men, who were part of an otherwise unidentified "specialist unit."

"Every effort is being made to find them," said Defense Minister Geoff Hoon.

The incident -- like the demoralizing images of U.S. prisoners of war, like the weekend death on the battlefield of well-known correspondent Terry Lloyd of the ITN network -- drives home the realization of how ugly this war could get.

"They are not setbacks; they are the sad inevitability of what we are doing," Deputy Defense Minister Lewis Moonie said Monday.

Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth visited bases in southwest Britain, where many of the troops who died were based. Some of the families she met Monday at Devonport Naval Base said the queen's gesture meant a lot. Massive antiwar marches in recent months had left British military families feeling hurt and abandoned, they said.

"It is nice to have support, because at the moment I do not feel we have got much," said Deborah Holdsworth, whose husband is with the Plymouth-based 29 Commando Regiment in the Gulf. "The troops are out there doing their job, and they should have our support."

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