Tue, Jul 15, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Blair set for Washington trip amid calls for a UN role

DISAGREEMENTS The British prime minister is expected to urge his closest ally to give the UN a role in Iraq and discuss British detainees awaiting trial in Guantanamo Bay

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing mounting pressure to urge US President George W. Bush to give the UN a greater role inside Iraq as a way of calming the security situation and indirectly helping ease the mounting political pressure over the government's handling of the Iraq crisis.

With Blair due to fly to Washington on Thursday, the prime minister is facing growing domestic demands to assert his independence from the Americans. Any demand for a bigger UN role could inflame already damaged relations between London and Washington.

Blair is locked in dispute with Bush over the future of British citizens held at Guantanamo Bay and the two country's normally cooperative intelligence agencies are at loggerheads over whether they ever possessed intelligence to justify the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger.

Ministers believe Blair will not be free of the torrent of media questions over the run-up to the war until the Iraq Survey Group reports on Saddam's weapons programs, or alternatively Iraq is more clearly free of Saddam.

They believe the Americans' dominating presence, leaving the UN sidelined, is slowing the path to reform, and Blair urgently needs to reopen discussions with Bush about expanding the limited UN role.

Britain is already arranging for EU troops, mainly from eastern Europe, to take over some of the British role in Iraq. An alternative, proposed by former US president Bill Clinton at the weekend is for NATO to be given a role, so internationalizing the security force.

On Sunday, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave little indication he was willing to bow to any British influence, predicting instead that the US may add to the 150,000 troops it already has there.

The US military also defended the planned military tribunals for the accused at Guantanamo Bay, insisting they will be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

British Home Secretary David Blunkett and the constitutional affairs secretary, Lord Falconer, believe that if the two alleged terrorists were returned to Britain, they may well not be sent to trial because of the way in which any evidence has been extracted from them. The decision would rest with the crown prosecution service.

Blunkett leans towards trial in the US civil courts, rather than repatriation, but such a trial risks ending with the death penalty, leaving ministers without an easy option.

British ministers closely involved in the discussions insist Blair is determined to confront Bush in private over the issue in Washington. But some of them were forced to spend another day fending off questions on how the government handled intelligence in the run- up to war.

The former chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, renewed his attack on Blair, saying the prime minister had made a fundamental mistake in claiming Iraq had weapons capable of being fired in 45 minutes.

He said Blair had over-interpreted the intelligence made available to him.

But Leader of the House of Commons Peter Hain also insisted that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq, and rejected calls for an independent judicial inquiry.

Speaking on UK morning TV station GMTV, he said: "I do not think that there is any greater justification for an independent inquiry ... we are going to find, I believe, the weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to the world and were used against other parts of the world. I think in the end history will judge that this was the right thing to do."

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