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Blair faces 'nightmare' over Iraq

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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Blair may have to make a choice: Follow his party, or his ally Bush

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- There's just one thing his country wants to know from Tony Blair.

As Patsy Calton of the Liberal Democrats asked the British prime minister: "Are you engaging in dangerous brinkmanship with Saddam Hussein, or are you seriously telling us that you intend to commit British troops when an overwhelming majority of the public is against this?"

Pressures are building up for Blair.

More than 100 of his Labour MPs threaten to oppose military action without more evidence from U.N. weapons inspectors against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The public too remains unconvinced. Talking to Londoners this week, doubts were raised over sufficient proof to justify an attack, the cost of a war and the motives, with one man saying it was just about oil.

One issue is crucial. Polls indicate that if the United Nations authorises an invasion of Iraq, then 73 percent of the British public will back it. But what if the United Nations doesn't?

"When you ask those same people what if the U.N. doesn't take action but the U.S. leads an attack on Iraq, how do you feel about using British troops then, it's now down to about 22 percent," says Peter Kellner, chairman of UK pollster YouGov.

Why so? Because only about a quarter of the British public trusts U.S. President George W. Bush on Iraq.

And political cartoonists have been depicting Blair as a man who'll do anything to please the American president.

"The most obvious image and the way the theme is used is Blair as Bush's poodle," says Dave Brown, cartoonist for The Independent, a British daily broadsheet.

"It's a very useful image. Blair is smaller and scurrying along behind Bush, trying to keep in step."

But maybe the two leaders are starting to fall out of step.

On Thursday, Blair's spokesman revealed that the prime minister had told his cabinet the U.N. inspectors must be given "time and space."

He also said Blair did not regard the report due on January 27 as a deadline that could trigger a conflict.

But he denied newspaper reports that Blair had urged Bush to delay any invasion of Iraq until the autumn.

Blair, the spokesman said, "underlined his view that the weapons inspectors in Iraq must be given the time and space they need to do their job and, in that sense, January 27, though an important staging post, shouldn't be regarded in any sense as a deadline."

"We are in the middle of a process," the spokesman told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. Waiting for news from the inspectors "may be frustrating, because it means we have to be patient, but this was the process which was unanimously agreed by the U.N. Security Council."

Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, Jeremy Greenstock, also told reporters in New York on Thursday to "calm down" about January 27.

"You shouldn't put too much emphasis on January 27, because the inspectors made it very clear to us today that if there is a smoking gun found or if there is a denial of access or a blocking of the inspectors' business, they will come to the Security Council straight away," Greenstock said.

"So by definition, January 27 won't necessarily produce anything new or dramatic because if that happens it will come on another day.

"My advice is calm down on January 27."

On Monday, Blair was as critical of America as he has ever been, telling British ambassadors gathered in London that Washington must pay more heed to other nations' concerns about the Middle East, global warming and world poverty.

"The problem people have with the not that, for example, they oppose them on weapons of mass destruction or international terrorism," he said. "People listen to the U.S. on these issues and may well agree with them. But they want the U.S. to listen back."

Blair is in a difficult position. The public doesn't want him to send British troops into action unless the order comes from the United Nations. And the U.N. won't give that order without more evidence of Saddam's wrongdoing.

The nightmare for Blair is that sometime next month Washington will decide to unleash its troops without waiting for U.N. approval -- and that he will then have to decide between his ally and his party.

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