SEDGEFIELD, England - The obvious target of the next United Nations Security Council vote on Iraq is Saddam Hussein, but the decision-making - the if and when of whether to wage war to disarm him - looks increasingly like it could cause an unintended casualty: the political career of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
That is reflected in defections within Blair's own party - even his Cabinet - and in opinion polls in Britain, which show that public support for a war against Iraq hinges on a second resolution from the Security Council.
The links between war, public opinion and the prime minister's political prospects can be heard, closer to home, from the tone of the Rev. John Caden, who baptized the Blairs' four children in this village in the North Country.
"Poor Tony," the 79-year-old priest said as he tended to his duties at St. John Fisher Catholic Church, where Blair attends services when he is in his home district. "He's a good man who, I'm afraid, has put himself in a bad position. I think this vote, unfortunately, will have a lot to do about whether he can extract himself from it."
Blair's position, for months, has been that he and President Bush should seek a second Iraq resolution from the Security Council. Blair said he would back war without one only if China, France or Russia were to "unreasonably" exercise the veto power that each possesses as a permanent member of the council.
If the resolution fails to get the nine votes needed for passage, Blair would almost certainly be taking the final step into war alongside the United States without U.N. approval, without the support of the majority of Britons and contrary to his long-stated position.
"The prime minister has expressed confidence the votes are there," a spokesman in his office said yesterday. "We are not going to speculate on anything that could or could not happen under other circumstances."
To underscore the importance of securing a second resolution, Blair and his diplomats were negotiating last night with other countries on language that could help its passage. A vote is expected this week.
The United States, Britain and Spain proposed a March 17 deadline for Hussein to disarm or face war; France and Russia said yesterday that they would vote against it. Both sides are lobbying the six undecided nations among the 10 elected Security Council members who serve two-year terms - Mexico, Chile, Pakistan, Cameroon, Angola and Guinea.
The threat to Blair's political career comes from within his Labor Party, which has a long history of pacifism and is deeply split on the prospect of war. One-third of the Labor members in Parliament have gone on record as stating that the case "has not yet been made" to go to war, an open act of defiance to the man who led them to victory in 1997, giving the party control of the government for the first time in 18 years.
Yesterday, the prime minister's office was scrambling to control the political damage caused when Clare Short, a Cabinet minister who oversees international development, threatened to resign if Blair leads the nation to war without U.N. backing. A junior member of his government has quit.
The danger for Blair is that if the dissension within his party spreads too broadly, his government could fall. Backbenchers have warned that if he goes to war without a second U.N. resolution, up to 200 of them could revolt, placing his party leadership in serious jeopardy.
"It's quite easy for people to come out and make too much of a political problem, but the fact is, I think he's in a terrible state," said David Mervin, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Warwick in Coventry. "His very political future is in doubt."
Nowhere are the feelings toward Blair and war more tormented than here in Sedgefield, where Blair first won political office in 1983 at the age of 30. Here, he is the local boy who made good, who at the age of 43 became Britain's youngest prime minister since 1812. And despite all the trappings of power, many here say, Blair has never forgotten that he comes from a district of broad, green fields dappled with sheep.
Early in his political career, as a backbencher with no real duties, he was free to return home from London each weekend, and he made a point of playing tennis with the priest on Saturdays and attending Mass with his wife, Cherie, who is Roman Catholic, and soon their children, on Sundays.
St. John Fisher Catholic Church is small and brick, with little more than a cement cross on its roof to distinguish it from the rowhouses connected to it on each side. It sits across the street from one of the village's six pubs. Inside the church one hears a mingling of accents - Scottish, Irish and English - that hint at its location in the far north of the country. Many Sundays, Blair volunteered to read Scripture.
"He is a very Christian man," said Caden. "He is very spiritual, but he is also prime minister. I'm not saying at all that you can't be spiritual and lead your country into war. I am saying that he has a tremendous conscience, and so this decision of war or no war has to be weighing on him very, very heavily."
But the priest, a former politician who served on the County Durham Council, will not share his feelings about Blair's apparent intention to move toward war.
"Everybody's torn on this, nobody more than Tony," said Caden. "I would never say anything either way because I wouldn't want to chance something I say putting more pressure on him."
There is deep support for Blair in his home district, even among many who disagree with his stance on war. If there is a common theme that bridges the faithful in Blair's church with the punters in the pubs, it is that Blair's reasons are pure, that his support for an Iraq war is not based on a political calculation to enhance his standing at home or on the world stage.
"With Blair, you can trust him that his motives are all right," said Ben Gaddard, a 32-year-old doctor sipping a beer at the Dun Cow Inn, where Blair still stops for a meal and a pint on his visits to the village.
"I'm prepared to take a leap of faith that he knows something that he can't share with us, but so far I haven't been convinced that the evidence is there," Gaddard said. "The important thing is this second resolution. I'd be deeply, deeply unhappy about going to war without a second resolution."
Blair's stance on Iraq flies in the face of the criticism he has faced most often as prime minister, that he pays too much attention to opinion polls at the expense of governing by conviction. He ushered the Labor Party back into power by arguing that it needed to move to the political center, to appeal to Middle England, if it were to defeat the conservatives.
Edward Lamb, a 58-year-old engineer from Sedgefield, has been just the type of political convert that Blair appealed to in 1997 and again when he won re-election by a landslide in 2001. A lifelong conservative, Lamb voted for Blair in both elections.
"I thought, 'Well, here's a conservative, sort of, but someone who would see both sides of things,' which is exactly what we've needed," Lamb said from his seat at the Dun Cow Inn. "But he's become kind of a control freak. With him now, it's kind of 'my way or no way.' That part, I don't like.
"On the other hand, he's by far the most capable man we have to be prime minister, and I support him on Iraq. I just wish he'd made the case better."
At St. John Fisher, Caden asked his congregation to "pray for a peaceful end to this Iraq crisis, even at this 11th hour."
"Of course, you pray for peace," Caden said after services. "I don't ask more than that or stand there and take sides, because people are too divided on it. I'll let them make up their own minds.
"I will say this: I do pray for the prime minister."