Labour Party Conference: Government Avoids Censure over Iraq Policy but Defiant Rebels Fire Broadside ; IRAQ DEBATE
Nigel Morris Political Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)
LABOUR leaders endured sustained and stinging criticism of Tony Blair's handling of the Iraq crisis yesterday, but avoided a party censure of the Government's policy.
A statement on Iraq by Labour's ruling National Executive Committee was rapidly withdrawn as the prospect grew that it would be thrown out by delegates.
A rebel motion opposing any military intervention in Iraq was defeated by 59.8 per cent to 40.2 per cent after a stormy debate in Blackpool which saw conference organisers accused of favouritism in their selection of speakers.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, put a brave face on such a large proportion of the conference defying the Government on the biggest foreign issue of the day.
He said: "The Labour Party, because of its internationalist commitment, has always been nervous of military action. That's right, that's good, we shouldn't be gung-ho and cavalier about it."
Earlier Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and Mr Straw each delivered a passionate defence of the Government's approach, which leaves open the option of joining attacks on Iraq as a last resort without United Nations approval.
Mr Hoon promised that ministers would show the same patience they demonstrated after 11 September, when they led efforts to build an international coalition to remove al-Qa'ida and the Taliban from Afghanistan.
"Similar challenges confront us again today as we consider the threat from Iraq. Once again we are being patient. Through the United Nations an international coalition is being built.
"Together, the international community will issue an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to destroy his weapons of mass destruction."
But Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, who has made little secret of her worries about the apparent slide to war, said: "We are meeting at a time when we are all acutely aware of the fragility of our world.
"The most immediate danger is, of course, Iraq. We can all hear the drumbeat of war. No one should welcome it."
Moving the rebel motion opposing action under any circumstances, Cristobel Guerney, from Regent's Park and Kensington North, said: "There is no case for war, but there is an alternative and that alternative is to send the weapons inspectors back. The Iraqi people have suffered from war and sanctions - they have suffered enough."
She insisted that President Saddam Hussein knew that he would face "overwhelming retaliation" if he attacked the West and argued that all Iraq's neighbours were opposed to armed intervention. …