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Last Updated:  Friday, 21 February, 2003, 13:34 GMT
UK tight-lipped on Iraq timescale
16 air assault brigade
British troops wait for their plane to the Gulf
Downing Street has refused to be drawn on reports that the UK is working behind the scenes to persuade the US to allow three more weeks for diplomacy.

On Tuesday Tony Blair refused to divulge any timescale for a new UN resolution authorising military action beyond saying decisions would be made "over the next few weeks".

He also appeared to be optimistic that countries such as France could still be persuaded to back action despite President Chirac's hints of a French veto of any new UN resolution.

"I think there is still an awful lot there to happen and to come about," Mr Blair said.

There is no rush to war: we waited 12 years and then went through the United Nations
Tony Blair
"I don't think the position is quite as settled as people think."

But he also fired a warning shot at those he said were trying to "pull America and Europe apart", saying they were playing a dangerous game for world security.

Mr Blair is due to have a private audience with the Pope at the weekend, who has urged a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Downing Street is refusing to confirm the audience, but it is understood Saturday's meeting will come after Mr Blair meets Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi.

Mr Blair said he "should and does listen to the thousands that marched on Saturday" in anti-war protests.

He insisted most of the marchers were not against war in all circumstances but were opposed to a war that was "rushed or unnecessary".

"There is no rush to war," he continued.

"We waited 12 years and then went through the United Nations. It is now three months since we gave Saddam what we called a 'final opportunity'."

Poll ratings

Tony Blair
Blair urged protesters to see both sides
But the prime minister is aware that he cannot be assured of public backing for war after last Saturday's massive peace protest in London.

The anti-war march attracted an estimated 750,000 to two million people.

Mr Blair is also facing mixed messages from opinion polls.

A Guardian/ICM poll suggested for the first time that a clear majority - 52% - oppose war on Iraq, while support for war is at 29%, its lowest yet.

But in Wednesday's Daily Telegraph an online poll conducted by YouGov suggested that public might be won round to the idea of using force to disarm Saddam Hussein.

Tony Blair no longer speaks for the people who voted him into power.
Graeme Stewart, Scotland

Mr Blair at the weekend put the moral argument for possible action, pointing at human rights abuses under Saddam Hussein's rule.

But he stressed he was only answering the "strong moral case" put by protesters highlighting the possible humanitarian consequences of war.

He urged peace campaigners: "Talk to those Iraqi exiles, talk to those who have seen their husbands, their fathers, their brothers tortured and killed."


A sixth of Iraq's population was in exile, said Mr Blair, as Downing Street published messages of support from Iraqi exiles.

The United States and Britain are trying to regain the diplomatic initiative over Iraq
BBC News Online's Paul Reynolds

Despite championing the moral case for removing Saddam Hussein, Mr Blair insisted the aim of any war would be disarmament.

Mr Blair's stance is backed by the Conservatives, but his words were criticised by Charles Kennedy.

Mr Kennedy said: "The prime minister implies - in making his moral case for regime change - that anyone who is not yet persuaded of the need for war is somehow less moral than he is.

"A lot of people in this country will resent that implication."

Despite their divisions, EU leaders on Monday agreed force should be used as a "last resort", but said weapons inspections could not continue indefinitely without Baghdad's cooperation.



The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"A prime minister on the defensive as never before"

Blair's war crisis deepens
17 Feb 03 |  UK Politics
Iraq exiles back Blair's stance
18 Feb 03 |  UK Politics

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