LONDON -- Authorizing the use of his military forces, British Prime Minister Tony Blair backed the United States in launching air attacks on Iraq last night.
Calling Saddam Hussein "a serial breaker of promises," Blair laid blame for the attack on the Iraqi leader, who he said reneged on international agreements made at the end of the Persian Gulf war.
"There is no realistic alternative to military force," a grim-faced Blair said as he stood outside his 10 Downing Street residence and announced the start of Operation Desert Fox.
"We are taking this military action with real regret but also with real determination," Blair said. "We have exhausted all other avenues. We act because we must."
Blair, who has never before sent troops into battle, said British involvement in the military action "will be significant," although he declined to provide specifics. British forces in the region include 12 Tornado GR1 attack aircraft based in Kuwait.
Blair said the military objective was to degrade Hussein's capability to build and use weapons of mass destruction.
He added, "Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people. It never has been. Our quarrel is with him [Saddam Hussein] alone and the evil regime which he represents."
Throughout the recent standoff with Iraq, Britain provided the United States with diplomatic and military support, providing a key international component to the operation.
Blair's government often signaled allied intentions hours ahead of pronouncements from Washington. The crisis also provided a reminder of the so-called "special relationship" that exists between the two countries.
Britain's main political parties stood united as the attack was unleashed. During a hushed afternoon session in the House of Commons, William Hague, leader of the opposition Conservative party, lent his backing to the planned bombardment.
None here questioned the motivation or timing behind an attack that came less than 24 hours before the U.S. Congress was due to begin debating articles of impeachment against President Clinton.
"This is about Saddam's behavior, not about Clinton's behavior," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said.
Elsewhere, the reaction was mostly supportive.
Israel, which endured Iraqi Scud attacks in the 1991 gulf war, said it was not part of a showdown with Baghdad but vowed to defend itself if dragged into the conflict.
Canada supported the move, with Prime Minister Jean Chretien saying, "Saddam Hussein has brought this crisis on himself obstructing the work of United Nations weapons inspectors in order to maintain the basis of a 'weapons of mass destruction' program."
Germany's new center-left government said it regretted that military measures were needed but backed the action.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's spokesman, Uwe-Karsten Heye, told German radio: "The Iraq leadership was warned and had to assume that the international community could not stand by and watch in the event that Iraq did not fully comply with the U.N. inspectors."
France, Iraq's biggest Western arms supplier in the 1970s and 1980s, said it "deplored" the strikes "and the grave human consequences which they could have for the Iraqi people."
Pub Date: 12/17/98