IRAQ IN CRISIS: Blair Denies Rift with US over Iraqi Sovereignty

Article excerpt

TONY BLAIR denied yesterday that there was a rift between him and President George Bush over whether the interim Iraqi government would be able to veto military operations by coalition forces from the end of June.

The Prime Minister told MPs: "We are both absolutely agreed that there should be full sovereignty transferred to the Iraqi people, and the multi- national force should remain under American command." He admitted his words would disappoint Labour MPs hoping he would distance himself from the US President.

Some MPs detected a more conciliatory tone towards Washington than Mr Blair adopted at a press conference on Tuesday, when he stressed that the Iraqis would hold a veto over sensitive operations, such as the US assault on Fallujah. Later, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, appeared to contradict Mr Blair, saying that US forces would remain under US command and would "do what is necessary to protect themselves."

Mr Blair also has problems closer to home on how coalition forces will operate from 1 July. His promise to give the Iraqis a veto has the backing of the Foreign Office, but not the Ministry of Defence.

British military commanders are said to be backing Mr Powell, a former US forces chief of staff, and to be worried that giving control to an Iraqi authority may lead to operations being delayed, security being compromised and soldiers put at risk. Senior officers are apprehensive that coalition forces could be manipulated in internecine Iraqi conflicts and alienated from sections of the community.

At the same time, British commanders are determined not to give up direct command to the Americans when, as expected, reinforcements deploy outside the currently British controlled zone.

The military chiefs want to remain under "tactical" American command, rather than "operational" command. The former allows forces of the two countries to support each other during emergencies and carry out joint operations. But it does not extend to day-to-day missions, with British forces having to automatically respond to American demands.

Yesterday, British officials insisted the apparent split between London and Washington was media driven, and stressed that Mr Blair and Mr Powell were responding to "different questions" from journalists. …