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International

Blair Govt. draws flak over Iraq again

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, MARCH 26. For the second time in less than a week, the Government was on Tuesday wrong-footed over claims intended to justify military intervention in Iraq even as the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, provoked criticism for advocating pre-emptive action against regimes which are seen to pose a threat to world stability.

With the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, due to meet the U.S. President, George W. Bush, in Washington in less than two weeks for talks on the second phase of the "war'' on terrorism, Downing Street has been trying to up the ante, and on Tuesday it darkly hinted at the possibility of the Saddam Hussein regime supplying chemical and biological weapons to Al-Qaeda.

``Given what we know about Al-Qaeda's interest in the material (weapons of mass destruction), we have to have concerns about a possible marriage between those who wish to acquire it and those who have it,'' Mr. Blair's spokesman said.

Senior military officials, however, were quick to contradict this saying they had no "credible'' evidence for it. "We are not aware... that the Iraqi Government or its agencies are passing on weapons of mass destruction to Al-Qaeda. Nor have we seen any credible evidence linking the Iraqi Government to the September 11 attacks,'' a military source told The Independent.

Critics accused the Government of planting stories to counter the growing unease among Labour MPs and within the Cabinet over Mr Blair's backing for any U.S. military action against Iraq. The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, infuriated his anti-war colleagues saying that such action did not necessarily require U.N. sanction. "As far as I understand the position, legally we would be perfectly entitled to use force as we have done in the past without the support of a United Nations Security Council resolution,'' he told ITV, intensifying the rift in the Cabinet over the issue. Clare Short, a senior Cabinet Minister, threatened last week to resign if Britain backed any military strikes against Baghdad without a fresh U.N. mandate.

The Foreign Secretary, in a major speech on Tuesday, blew hot and cold saying on the one hand that Saddam Hussein could let himself off the hook if he allowed U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country and they gave him a clean cheat, but insisting that his regime posed a threat to world peace and Britain must "stand up to bullies like Saddam''.

In what commentators described as a dangerous doctrine, Mr Straw advocated a policy based on "foresight not hindsight'' to deal with potentially dangerous regimes.

"Western nations must try to prevent the rise of regimes like that of Saddam Hussein to avoid threats to world stability'', he said prompting The Times to dub it as a "distinctly odd theory of pre-emptive action''.

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