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Blair (again) faces backlash over Iraq policy

Prime Minister Tony Blair tells a news conference Monday that if any British troops are found guilty of mistreating Iraqi prisoners they will be prosecuted. 
Prime Minister Tony Blair tells a news conference Monday that if any British troops are found guilty of mistreating Iraqi prisoners they will be prosecuted.  Max Nash / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

For British political cartoonists, the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal has provided a wealth of material.

Parodying one of the most disturbing photographs seen around the world, artists from two newspapers drew President George Bush holding a leash attached to the neck of Prime Minister Tony Blair lying naked on the ground.

"This is about as bad as things can be for Blair at the moment," said veteran political analyst Anthony Howard.

For Blair, the Bush administration's closest partner in the Iraq war, the revelations about U.S. and British soldiers’ mistreating Iraqi prisoners have hit hard and are threatening a drop in support for his government.

Political opponents see the abuse reports as vindication, while many of the prime minister's backers feel bitterly disappointed and let down.

In a heated exchange during Wednesday's session of the House of Commons, opposition leader Michael Howard asked, "How can the people of this country have confidence in the prime minister?"

Questioning U.S. alliance
As support for the war in Iraq wanes in Britain, even some in Blair's own Labour Party question his unflinching alliance with Bush.

"His primary problem is people cannot understand why he stands shoulder to shoulder with the American president," said Howard.

A recent poll in the London newspaper The Times shows Labour's support to be at a 17-year low, with only 19 percent registering satisfaction for the Blair government.

The newspaper was careful to point out, however, that despite widespread concerns, only 35 percent of those polled would prefer to switch to Conservative rule.

An unnamed senior government official told The Times, "There is an overwhelming political imperative to say in public what we have been telling the Americans privately for some time.  Everyone is very unhappy. We're taking awesome political hits."

Allegations of British abuse
For days on end, the tabloids and "quality" newspapers have been filled with pictures and articles detailing alleged abuses against Iraqi prisoners.

At first, the reports concentrated on American troops and were accompanied by the now-familiar graphic photos from Abu Ghraib jail.

Then, Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper published photographs purporting to show a British soldier beating and urinating on a bound and hooded Iraqi suspect.

While questions soon arose about the validity of those pictures, other allegations against British troops began to spiral into the public domain.

Government officials now admit they have been investigating 33 reports that British soldiers may have been involved in beatings, sexual abuse and the death of an Iraqi detainee.

So far, they say, 15 of those cases have been cleared, but at least two are currently headed for possible legal action.

Blair apologized on television, and later said at a news conference that while most British soldiers fulfilled their mission honorably, "There can be no excuse for mistreating or abusing prisoners. We didn't commit British troops to Iraq in order to carry out abuses of human rights, but to end abuses of human rights."

Red Cross report — when did the government know?
The coalition in Iraq and the British government suffered another political blow this week when, in a leaked report, the International Committee of the Red Cross claimed it had alerted officials last year to allegations of prisoner mistreatment.

In a confidential report given to authorities in February this year, the ICRC described British troops’ hooding prisoners and stamping on the necks of kneeling Iraqi detainees, one of whom died.

Because the British government never passed on this report to Parliament, some have accused officials of a cover-up.

"So What are they Hiding," read one newspaper headline. 

Blair said he hadn't seen the document, and Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said he hadn't read it until just a few days ago, when reports of abuse first surfaced in the news.

Both men claimed the allegations detailed in the Red Cross documents were already being investigated internally by British officials.

Opponents were quick, though, to argue the government should have been more aware of the problem and more aggressive in addressing it.

"This is a government that has lost its grip on Iraq," said Nicholas Soames, the opposition defense spokesman, in the House of Commons.

In a Daily Mirror headline, Hoon was described as "Minister for Self-Defense," although an editorial in The Times suggested he gave a "strong and largely convincing performance" in defending the government's handling of abuse allegations.

More accusations
Adding to the political and public concern is a recently released report from Amnesty International claiming British troops shot and killed Iraqi civilians, including an 8-year-old girl, a security guard and a man celebrating at a wedding.

Amnesty claimed the killings occurred when there was apparently "no imminent threat of death or serious injury" to the soldiers, although some occurred during demonstrations or other disturbances.

The report also said officials failed to investigate many of the killings, and that the British Royal Military Police "has been highly secretive and has provided families with little of no information."

In rejecting calls for an independent investigation, a Blair spokesman said military police were already looking into all the cases detailed by Amnesty International.

The unnamed spokesman was quoted as saying military investigators have "a long track record of establishing the truth in such matters."

In a related development, however, 12 Iraqi families who allege their relatives were killed unlawfully by British troops have won a High Court ruling allowing them to continue their argument for an independent review and compensation from the government.

Lawyers are asking for judges to consider whether the killings were a violation of European law protecting the right to life.

Political fallout
One incident that might help Blair politically is the argument over whether the Daily Mirror pictures purporting to show a British soldier abusing an Iraqi detainee in the back of a truck were faked.

Hoon told the House of Commons that the vehicle in which the photographs were taken was not in Iraq "during the relevant period." Army officers demanded Hoon censure the Daily Mirror.

In a carefully worded response, the newspaper stood by the photos, saying they "accurately illustrate" serious abuse.

Political analyst Howard said Blair could be partially vindicated if anger builds publicly over the photographs. "It will help him," he added.

Despite that, the widespread feeling in Great Britain is that Iraq and the abuse scandal are a domestic political disaster long from over.

On newsstands again Wednesday here there were more blistering headlines, including this from the conservative Daily Telegraph, "Blair faces leadership revolt as abuse crisis deepens."