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Blasts Fan Antiwar Feelings in Britain

Bombings in Istanbul trigger fear and spark a backlash against Tony Blair. Many critics argue that Iraq is the wrong front in a good fight.

November 22, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — Concussions from the Istanbul bombings buffeted Britain, which awoke Friday to the knowledge that being Washington's No. 1 ally in the Iraq war carried a deadly risk.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had predicted that an Al Qaeda attack against British interests was only a matter of time.

But when the explosions came Thursday, they triggered more than just fear and mourning. They sparked a sharp, sometimes savage backlash against Blair's decision to make Iraq the focus of Britain's fight against terrorism.

"A Safer World?" the Daily Mirror, a tabloid, asked the prime minister in its Friday editions, a headline along the lines of other papers' that proclaimed "Britain Under Attack" and "Will Britain Be Hit Next?"

"Most of the original Al Qaeda targets were American but frankly, when our prime minister became such a chum of George Bush and decided we must pay the blood price in support, we became the second targets," Nicholas Barrington, a former British high commissioner to Pakistan, said in an interview. "I'm quite convinced that if it hadn't been for the attack on Iraq with which we were associated, our consul general in Istanbul would still be alive. No doubt about it at all."

But Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was in Istanbul inspecting the rubble of the British Consulate and the London-based HSBC Bank's headquarters in Turkey, described any suggestion that Britain had brought terrorism upon itself as "utter and palpable nonsense."

Many countries had been "victims of terrorism months and years before we made a separate and distinct decision to take military action in Iraq," Straw said Friday in a BBC interview, adding that "had we not taken military action against Iraq, I am clear that the same level of incidence of terrorist atrocities organized by Al Qaeda and its associates would have gone on. They would have found other excuses, and we still would have had to fight terrorism."

Others were not so sure.

Belief that Iraq is the wrong front in a good war against Al Qaeda has been a cornerstone of the British antiwar argument.

"The thing about Saddam Hussein being a threat was dreamt up by Washington and London in order to justify having a bash, and it's been interpreted as that by the Muslim world," Barrington said.

"The Iraq experience is just pushing a lot of moderate Muslims into the arms of Al Qaeda. It's not in America's interest to antagonize the whole of the Muslim world, as they have now done, and it's certainly not in the British interest either."

Some of Blair's harshest critics are former British diplomats who have served in the Middle East.

"It's as plain as a pikestaff that the invasion of Iraq has not helped, but has accentuated, the war on terrorism," said Harold Walker, a onetime ambassador to Iraq.

Those who study Muslim terror networks say the U.S.-led occupation is spawning a radical movement much broader than Al Qaeda. Iraq "risks becoming a crystallizing point" for radical Muslims, August Hanning, head of Germany's intelligence service, said Thursday in a speech at a conference on the Middle East in Munich. "Success on the military front alone will not lead to a solution. We are in the process of losing the battle for people's minds."

For his part, Blair clearly anticipated the attempt to lay blame for the Istanbul bombings at his door. The prime minister tackled the issue Thursday at his joint news conference with Bush without waiting for the question to be asked, acknowledging that there would be some "who think that Britain would gain from standing back from this struggle, even some who believe that we and the United States and our allies have somehow brought this upon ourselves."

"Let us be very clear," Blair said. "What has caused the terrorist attack today in Turkey is not the president of the United States, is not the alliance between America and Britain. What is responsible for that terrorist attack is terrorism."

Blair appears to have received little political comfort from Bush in return for assuming the risks associated with the invasion. London and Washington have several significant disputes, running parallel to the war on Iraq. Blair did receive assurances this week from the Bush administration that British companies -- and firms from countries that joined the coalition in Iraq -- would be allowed to compete for more than two dozen American-funded reconstruction contracts. "They've at last recognized that we are a member of the coalition," a senior British official, who asked not to be named, said about the administration this week.

But Bush made no concessions to Blair while in London -- at least publicly -- on the more high-profile issues that are causing the prime minister significant political grief, notably the controversial incarceration of nine Britons at Guantanamo Bay, and the Bush administration's refusal so far to lift its tariffs against European steel.

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