British show their support, debate the proper reaction

Many oppose casualties among British troops and Afghan civilians

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 25, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - British Prime Minister Tony Blair may have vowed to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but that does not mean that all in his country are girding for a global battle against terrorism.

Veteran peace campaigners and left-wing pundits have already fired the first volleys in a nascent anti-war movement, while a few members of Blair's Labor Party have expressed skepticism over blindly following the U.S. lead into battle.

So far, public opinion has remained behind Blair and his policy of aiding the United States. The public mood was probably best captured in the days immediately after the attack, when Queen Elizabeth II ordered that "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played during the Changing of the Guard at her London residence, Buckingham Palace. Thousands of people then flocked to a service of remembrance at St. Paul's Cathedral, honoring those missing and presumed killed in the attacks, including at least 200 Britons.

Yesterday, key political leaders visited Blair's 10 Downing St. office to be briefed by the prime minister on Britain's potential role in the fight against terrorism.

"If we are ever to defeat this threat of terrorism, then we must stand with the government to do that," said the new leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith.

Donald Anderson, who chairs Britain's foreign affairs select committee, told reporters: "We are showing our solidarity. The next phase is to come."

Yet for all the show of support, there is robust debate brewing over how the British should react amid speculation that Parliament might be recalled from recess to debate the crisis. Blair also could face criticism from his party's left wing during next week's scheduled Labor conference.

"The far left is traditionally anti-American, traditionally sympathetic to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament," said Robert Worcester, who directs the influential polling service MORI.

"There is a great tradition of pacifism on the left wing of the Labor Party," Worcester said, "and deep skepticism - not of Americans, but of American foreign and defense policy."

Worcester said the greatest surprise in recent opinion polls is that support for military action has been consistently high, with a MORI poll showing that 77 percent of Britons surveyed support military action if the United States can identify those responsible for the attacks. And 60 percent of Britons surveyed support action, even if it leads to war.

But in a clear warning that the action would have to be precisely targeted to maintain British support, only 45 percent backed military action if it meant that innocent civilians would be killed or wounded, while 47 percent opposed such action.

Unease over future British moves arose during yesterday's annual gathering of Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats. Several speakers argued against attacking Afghanistan, reputedly the base for the suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

"I do not want to see young British army men come back in body bags," delegate Hughie Rose told the conference. "Nobody is talking about going into Northern Ireland and bombing Northern Ireland, so why is there such a frenzy that everyone wants to get out and drop bombs on Afghanistan?"

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said: "We have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that where our armed forces are involved, the risks to them are quantified and minimized. We cannot shelve or abandon that requirement. That means supporting American actions, only in the knowledge that Britain will be involved in all planning and risk assessment."

On Sunday, about 3,000 people attended a silent peace vigil in London held by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which had its heyday during the Reagan years amid a buildup of the U.S. military. Further rallies are planned.

And yesterday, Peter Kilfoyle, a former Labor defense minister, told the British Broadcasting Corp.: "Hawks in the American administration, I fear, are trying to shape an agenda which settles old scores rather than meets the needs of a campaign against terrorism. If anything, they're going to make matters infinitely worse."

The letters section of yesterday's The Guardian offered conflicting opinions from some of the newspaper's readers.

"George Bush did not stand shoulder to shoulder with the civilized world when he turned his back on the Kyoto Protocol," Rosemary Revel of Dorking wrote. "Was he with us or against us?"

Nick Long of Catford wrote: "Nine months from taking office to declaring a war. Is this a record, even for a Republican American president?"

Sadiq Mohamed of Waltham Cross wrote: "Your correspondents seem to be unable to grasp what happened on Sept. 11. The liberal press are continually up in arms about the excesses of `multinational business.' What we have here is the excess of `multinational terrorism.'"

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