Blair affirms support on Iraq

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood firmly with President Bush yesterday in his campaign to confront Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, calling the threat "real," and saying, "Deal with it we must."

Blair, conferring with Bush last night at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, stands alone as the only U.S. ally in Europe supporting Bush's demand that the world take on Hussein. He has backed Bush despite considerable pressure in Britain, where the public overwhelmingly opposes military action in Iraq and where there is a growing perception that Blair is kowtowing to the U.S. president.

Both leaders yesterday insisted, despite doubts voiced around the world, that there is ample evidence that Hussein may soon, if he does not already, possess nuclear weapons.

"We owe it to future generations to deal with this problem," Bush said, speaking before beginning a series of meetings and dinner with the British leader.

Under pressure from members of Congress and other world leaders to supply clear evidence of the threat posed by Hussein, Bush referred yesterday to a conclusion drawn by United Nations weapons inspectors after the 1991 Persian Gulf war that Iraq was at the time as close as six months away from developing an atomic weapon.

"I don't know what more evidence we need," the president said.

Bush will deliver a major address Thursday to the United Nations General Assembly in which he has said he would lay out his case for why the world must confront Hussein.

While the president says Hussein should be removed from power, he and his advisers are seriously considering supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution that would give Hussein a firm deadline to admit weapons inspectors into Iraq again without conditions or face consequences, which may be left vague to woo support from nations that strongly oppose military action, such as Russia and China.

Signs that Bush might consider a last-ditch diplomatic approach to Iraq have tentatively pleased other world leaders - who are generally opposed to toppling Hussein and have warned Bush against taking unilateral military action against Iraq - and have made it politically easier for Blair to support him.

But the president reiterated yesterday that he wants Hussein ousted, saying "my administration still supports regime change." Blair did not go that far, stopping short of saying that Hussein's ouster was an explicit goal.

Asked whether he has support from any other countries besides Britain in his push to confront Hussein, Bush said, "Yes."

"A lot of people understand that this man has defied every U.N. resolution - 16 U.N. resolutions he's ignored," Bush said. "A lot of people understand he holds weapons of mass destruction. A lot of people understand he has invaded two countries. A lot of people understand he's gassed his own people. A lot of people understand he is unstable."

Blair said that the United States and Britain should not be alone in taking on Iraq and that "we want the broadest possible international support." He said that he preferred if the United States and Britain had the backing of the United Nations, but not at the cost of inaction.

"The U.N.'s got to be the way of dealing with this issue, not the way of avoiding dealing with it," Blair said. "It's not us, it's not Britain nor America that's in breach of United Nations resolutions. It's Saddam Hussein and Iraq. And therefore, this issue is there for the international community to deal with. And we've got to make sure that it is a way of dealing with it."

Bush and Blair insisted that Hussein could threaten not just other nations in the Arab world, but also countries such as Britain and the United States, with chemical and biological weapons as well as nuclear weapons. Bush has said there is a grave danger that Hussein could let such weapons into the hands of terrorist groups.

But some members of Congress and other international leaders have said they have not yet seen intelligence or evidence to convince them that Hussein has become any more of a threat in recent years.

Bush and Blair said yesterday that ample evidence exists that Hussein may soon, if he does not already, be able to use nuclear weapons. Both leaders referred to a recent report from U.N. weapons inspectors which, based on satellite images, suggested that there was construction since 1999 at nuclear sites in Iraq. The report could not conclude whether or not the construction was related to weapons.

Bush also mentioned the earlier report suggesting that a decade ago Iraq was six months from building an atomic weapon. In 1998, after weapons inspectors spent several years in Iraq dismantling nuclear facilities, the inspectors said they had no indications that Iraq had been successful in developing an atomic weapon.

Last week, Blair vowed to release a dossier of evidence demonstrating the threat posed by Hussein. A British official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that the evidence would be released by the British government "within a matter of weeks."

The official said he did not know whether there would be any evidence from the past year or two that Hussein had become more dangerous.

He said the dossier would likely be more of a comprehensive picture of Hussein and his activities during the past decade which, he said, would offer other leaders and the public a grim image of a man who may soon threaten the world. And he said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were, in large part, the reason Blair supports dealing with Iraq now.

"In light of 9/11, we are going to take all intelligence of global threats more seriously," he said.

Bush said yesterday that the terrorist attacks last year gave him more urgency to deal with Hussein. "There's no way we could have possibly envisioned that the battlefield would change," Bush said. "And it has. And that's why we've got to deal with all the threats."

White House officials have acknowledged that, even if the United Nations passes a resolution, they do not expect Hussein to allow weapons inspectors in again, even if that means facing an attack.

Yesterday, however, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said that he thought there is a "strong possibility" that weapons inspectors would be permitted to return and have unlimited access to "whatever sites" they want to inspect.

But Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi information minister, said yesterday that he thought the United States would likely attack, even if inspectors were granted entry. "There is a mad administration in the United States of America, which seeks to destroy anyone who says 'no' to it," he said.

"What they care about is a change in the political regime in Iraq."

Neither Bush nor Blair has overwhelming support from constituents for efforts to deal with Iraq. Polls show a bare majority of Americans support a U.S. invasion of Iraq, but only if U.S. allies are involved.

The British public is overwhelmingly against British military force in Iraq. In a poll last week conducted by ICM Research, 71 percent in Great Britain said they did not want their nation to join a U.S-led invasion of Iraq.

In the same poll, 38 percent of respondents believed Blair "is a poodle who follows along with almost anything George Bush does." Respondents in Britain were also asked who they thought was the biggest threat to world peace. President Bush was listed as third, behind Osama bin Laden and Hussein.

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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