LONDON - Acknowledging that anti-war demonstrators around the world were expressing "an entirely understandable hatred of war," a stern Prime Minister Tony Blair declared yesterday that there was nonetheless a "moral case" for war against Saddam Hussein.
Speaking of the anti-war demonstrators in London, Blair told a group of fellow Labor Party members in Glasgow: "If there are 500,000 on that march, that is still less than the number of people whose deaths [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] has been responsible for."
Blair's remarks, his first since the United Nations weapons inspectors' report to the Security Council on Friday, were impassioned, but the crowd was skeptical. As Blair spoke, some listeners held up placards saying "No Blood for Oil."
Blair remains the United States' staunchest ally as it lays the groundwork for a war in Iraq, a position that could have disastrous consequences for his domestic political standing if the war goes forward.
"I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor," he said. "But sometimes it is the price of leadership and cost of conviction."
The prime minister also said that U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq should be given more time to conduct their inspections. But he warned that a failure to force Hussein to disarm soon - either voluntarily or by force - would rob the United Nations of its mandate and have disastrous consequences for the world.
"If we show weakness now, if we allow the plea for more time to become just an excuse for prevarication until the moment for action passes, then it will not only be Saddam who is repeating history," he said.
"The menace, and not just from Saddam, will grow," he said. "The authority of the U.N. will be lost, and the conflict when it comes will be more bloody."
He also said that the issue was not whether the inspectors found weapons, but whether Hussein demonstrated a sufficient degree of cooperation with their search.
"The time needed is not the time it takes the inspectors to discover the weapons - they are not a detective agency," he said. "The time is the time necessary to make a judgment - is Saddam prepared to cooperate fully or not? If he is, the inspectors can take as much time as they want."
Blair ridiculed Hussein's announcement Friday that Iraq had decided to enact a law banning all weapons of mass destruction. Such seeming concessions, he said, are part and parcel with the Iraqi leader's unscrupulous behavior in the past.
"To anyone familiar with Saddam's tactics of deception and evasion, there is a weary sense of deja vu," Blair said.