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Blair warns of 'regime change' in Iraq

8 April 2002

Tony Blair made his most explicit threat last night that Iraq would face military action and "regime change" unless Saddam Hussein let United Nations weapons inspectors back into the country.

In a speech sure to infuriate scores of Labour MPs, the Prime Minister said that President Saddam would be toppled from power if necessary because he posed such a threat to world security.

Use of the phrase "regime change" marks an important strengthening of Mr Blair's rhetoric, clearly echoing the White House's increasingly bellicose language since 11 September. It signals a break by the Prime Minister from traditional Foreign Office caution on the issue.

Mr Blair who arrived back in London this morning, told reporters travelling with him that he was confident of winning backing from his MPs for his stance on Iraq.

The Prime Minister said: "What you will find is that what most people want is for us to act for the right reasons in the right way."

Very few people would defend Saddam, and most agreed on the need to prevent him stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, he said, adding: "The issue is about how. "All I say to people is let's not get ahead of ourselves here. We are still in the position of identifying the problem and laying down conditions for Saddam.

"People don't want us to act precipitately for the wrong reasons in the wrong way," he said.

Rounding off his two days of talks with President George Bush, Mr Blair told businessmen in College Station, Texas, that his own experience in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone proved that replacement of corrupt regimes was sometimes the only option.

Downing Street sources made clear that one option being actively explored by the United States was the creation of a military ground force in Iraq similar to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, backed by American air power.

In Baghdad last night, the Iraqi leader showed his defiance. He vowed to retaliate by supplying Palestinians "with every means by which they can defend themselves. We will fight [the Americans] with missiles, warplanes, marsh reeds and even stones and they will be defeated," he was quoted as saying in the state-run media.

Mr Blair was briefed on CIA reports at the President's ranch about the threat from President Saddam's attempts to obtain nuclear, biological, radiological and chemical weapons. Later in his speech at the George Bush Snr Presidential Library, the Prime Minister stressed that no "precipitate action" would be taken but delivered a blunt warning that President Saddam had to allow weapons inspectors into his country "any time, any place that the international community demands.

"We must be prepared to act where terrorism or weapons of mass destruction threaten us. The fight against international terrorism is right. We should pursue it vigorously, not just in Afghanistan but elsewhere," Mr Blair said.

"Since 11 September the action has been considerable, in many countries, but there should be no let up. If necessary the action should be military, and again if necessary and justified it should involve regime change.

"The moment for decision on how to act is not yet with us. But to allow weapons of mass destruction to be developed by a state like Iraq without let or hindrance would be grossly to ignore the lesson of 11 September and we will not do it."

When Mr Blair returns to London today, he will face a growing revolt from his backbenchers over his stance. Lord Healey, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, warned that Mr Bush's stance risked unleashing a jihad, or holy war, from the Muslim world.

Paul Waugh and Colin Brown
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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