LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair took on British critics of his hard-line stance on Iraq yesterday, pledging to work for a solution through the United Nations and not to take any action without submitting the case to Parliament.
In a tough speech to the Trades Union Congress at its annual convention in Blackpool, Blair coupled his promise to involve the United Nations with a warning that "action will follow" if President Saddam Hussein ignores demands to let weapons inspectors back into Iraq.
"If the challenge to us is to work with the United Nations, we will respond to it," he told the delegates. "But if we do so, then the challenge to all of us in the United Nations is this: The United Nations must be the way to resolve the threat from Saddam, not a way of avoiding it."
On Monday, the delegates held a noisy debate over Iraq, with a motion declaring that Britain should obtain U.N. approval for any action barely winning out over a more defiant measure condemning any move on Iraq.
A number of union leaders had predicted that Blair would be heckled and jeered, but his 25-minute speech received respectful silence throughout and then a standing ovation.
Blair effectively pre-empted protests by beginning his talk with a grim and graphic description of Hussein's history of the use of chemical weapons.
He then recalled how, a year ago, he had been about to address the union at its conference in Brighton at the moment he got news of the attacks on the United States and had to leave the stage to return to London.
"Suppose I had come last year on the same day as this year - Sept. 10," he said. "Suppose I had said to you, 'There is a terrorist network called al-Qaida. It operates out of Afghanistan. It has carried out several attacks, and we believe it is planning more. It has been condemned by the United Nations in the strongest terms. Unless it is stopped, the threat will grow. And so I want to take action to prevent that.'
"Your response and probably that of most people would have been very similar to the response of some of you yesterday."
Blair, who met Saturday with President Bush at Camp David, has been the staunchest international supporter of the Bush administration's call for action and has sought to generate support for the initiative among other European nations and in Russia, where he is scheduled to travel later this month.
But a majority of the British public, large numbers of Labor Party members of Parliament and a trade union movement that has become newly emboldened with the election of a new generation of militant leaders have expressed disapproval of Blair's closeness to Bush and of his commitment to involving Britain in the move on Hussein.
Blair's performance yesterday seemed to calm the protest, at least temporarily.
"I am quite happy with the speech; it wasn't the clash we predicted," said Derek Simpson, a former Communist who stunned 10 Downing St. in July by winning control of Amicus, Britain's second-largest union, from Sir Ken Jackson, the prime minister's closest ally in the labor movement.
"There is no substitute for the prime minister at the dispatch box responding to members of Parliament from all sides of the house," said Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign policy spokesman and an outspoken opponent of swift action in Iraq. Campbell added that Blair "still has to make his case to the British people."
Blair is due back in the same hall in two weeks for the Labor Party's annual convention, and delegates have said they intend to make the Iraq policy a centerpiece of the conference.
In his speech yesterday, Blair said he was aware of the doubts in the country about taking military action, but he argued that not acting ran greater risks.
"If we do not deal with the threat from this international outlaw and his barbaric regime, it may not erupt and engulf us this month or next, perhaps not even this year or the next, but it will at some point," he said.
"And I do not want it on my conscience that we knew the threat, saw it coming and did nothing."