Iraq Gives Blair Nightmare Week
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
Tony Blair is one of the most gifted politicians currently on the world stage. His boundless energy, razor-sharp intellect, matchless debating skills and phenomenal powers of persuasion have rapidly propelled him to the very top of the political world. Until the Iraq conflict, Blair's position as prime minister seemed unassailable. However, since going to war his once dazzling fortunes have been completely transformed and in the last seven days his premiership has taken a particular severe battering.
At the heart of all his current troubles lies the controversial Iraq war, which divided British public opinion. Issues relating to it are still causing Blair immense political damage and may eventually force him to resign. A brief examination of the last seven days graphically illustrates the scale of the problem.
Day One: Wednesday 25 February 2004
The trial of Katharine Gun, a former translator at a government spying facility, collapses. Ms. Gun was accused of leaking e-mails that showed American spies requested British secret service assistance in bugging UN delegates in the run up to the Iraq war. Gun's justification for leaking the secret information to the press was that she was acting to prevent an unlawful war. Government lawyers felt that they could not disprove her defence and the case was dropped. This action generated widespread speculation in the press that the trial was halted because Ms. Gun's defence team had requested full details of the Attorney General's opinion on the legality of the war. The government is determined to keep this document secret, which makes critics believe it has something to conceal. The prime minister was forced to state that dropping the case had nothing to do with the legality of war. However, this denial made it look like Blair had something to hide and again brought into question the legality of the war.
Day Two: Thursday 26 February 2004
A few hours before Tony Blair was due to give his monthly news conference, Clare Short, a former Cabinet minister who resigned over the war, claimed in an interview on Radio 4 that prior to the military conflict Britain spied on the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Asked directly if British agents had spied on the UN chief, Ms. Short said, "Yes, absolutely." She added, "I have seen transcripts of Kofi Annan's conversations." Short's allegations and the fallout from the Gun case dominated the press conference ruining Blair's plans to talk about the domestic agenda. Blair refused to confirm or deny Short's claims, describing them as "deeply irresponsible." He said, "I'm not going to comment on the work of our security services. Do not take that as an indication that the allegations made by Clare Short are true." He added, " This is a dangerous time for this country and the world…We need our security services. We need these people who risk their lives for us to feel confident of the strong support and backing right across the political spectrum for what they do." Commentators pointed out that the security services risking their lives to fight terrorism and spying on Kofi Annan were two separate issues. Charles Kennedy, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, observed, "Tony Blair must not be allowed to use the cloak of the secret services to protect himself." It was another bad day for Tony Blair.
Day Three: Friday 27 February 2004
The United Nations spying row widened when former weapons inspector Hans Blix claimed that he strongly suspected both his UN office and New York home were bugged in the run-up to the Iraq conflict. Commenting on the British spying allegations, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said, "We want this action to stop if indeed it has been carried out." He added, "It undermines the Secretary General's conduct of business with other leaders. It is therefore not good for the United Nations' work and it is illegal." This and other spying allegations compounded Blair's embarrassment, creating a new Iraq controversy.
Day Four: Saturday 28 February 2004
Blair again attempts to shift the political focus away from Iraq, but fails as spying allegations dominate the weekend newspapers. One paper describes Short as a Woman of Mass Destruction (WMD) capable of destroying Tony Blair.
Day Five: Sunday 29 February 2004
Although Sunday is meant to be a day of rest, not so for Clare Short who repeats her UN spying allegations on the Jonathan Dimbleby show. She also claims that the war was initially ruled illegal by the Attorney General and questions its legality. Her closing remarks in the interview imply that Tony Blair was dishonest in his arguments about going to war. She said, "I think that what has happened is very very very serious for our country, my party, our government. I think the public need to face the way in which there were a series of deceits and half-truths and shuffles on the route to war and look at what it means for our political system and what we have got to do about it."
Day Six: Monday 1 March 2004
The Conservative Party decides to pull out of the Butler inquiry into intelligence shortcomings on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Conservative leader, Michael Howard, said Butler's interpretation of the inquiry's terms of reference had become "unacceptably restrictive." The other main opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, had refused to even join the committee before it was established. Blair had been forced to set up an inquiry due to pressure over the failure to find any WMD in Iraq. The withdrawal of the Conservatives leaves only Labour Party members to investigate their own party, making the inquiry's findings lack credibility. The move was highly embarrassing for Blair and yet again hammered home his vulnerability on Iraq.
Day Seven: Tuesday 2 March 2004
In Iraq it was the bloodiest day since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Up to 271 people were killed in suicide-bombing attacks in Baghdad and Karbala. Despite the fact that US forces had nothing to do with the atrocities, they were still strongly criticized by Iraq's top Shia Muslim cleric, Ayatollah al-Sistani. He said that they had failed to secure the country's borders from foreign attackers and so shared some of the responsibility for the deaths. The terrible carnage underlined the immense difficulties coalition forces face in trying to control the volatile country and increased British anxiety about Iraq policy, which further complicates Blair's task.
It was a terrible end to a grueling seven days for Blair, highlighting the immense pressure he is under over Iraq. If the current level of Iraq-related controversies continues, one has to question whether Blair can survive politically.
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