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A million to say no to Blair on Iraq

 


 
TONY Blair will face the largest political demonstrations in British history with an expected turnout of 750,000 on Saturday, potentially the eve of a declaration of war on Iraq.

With the United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan warning yesterday that US unilateral action is not acceptable, organisers of anti-war rallies in London and Glasgow maintained the massive marches could 'finish Blair as a political force'.

Downing Street, however, is still confident that a second UN resolution on Iraq will be delivered and public opinion will eventually swing behind the government.

'Even the police, who are notoriously conservative, admit that this will be the largest gathering of people in London since VE Day in 1945,' said Andrew Burgen, of the Stop The War Coalition.

'This is the most serious issue facing the country and on the course of war Blair has been unable to persuade the electorate. He may carry on for a while but his political capital is spent.'

The Prime Minister will bring his case for invading Iraq to Labour's spring conference in Glasgow and will be met by the largest Scottish anti-war demonstration.

Organisers of the Glasgow anti-war rally fear that they will not be able to cope with the scale of the protest. Conservative estimates suggest that 25,000 will converge on Glasgow Green for the 11am rendezvous. But the protest could top 40,000.

In London, marchers will gather in Hyde Park, overturning a previous decision by the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell to close the park to the demonstration.

Meanwhile, in a warning to both the United States and to UN Security Council countries contemplating using their veto on a second resolution against Iraq, Annan yesterday told the US government that it should not declare unilateral war against Saddam Hussein.

In a combination of timely warning and appeal that indicates just how worried the UN is that its authority is under threat, Annan said that if the report on Friday from UN weapons inspectors points to Iraq not disarming, then 'the [security] council must face up to its responsibilities'.

Annan said that the Iraqi crisis was 'an issue not for any one state, but for the international community as a whole'.

Although the secretary general asked for 'patient diplomatic persuasion and coalition-building', indications from the US point to their patience all but gone.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking in Munich yesterday, said Iraq had to be tackled or the cost would be 'unthinkable'. Rumsfeld, speaking of past ignored UN resolutions on Iraq, said Saddam had crossed 17 lines in the sand and had to be 'stopped' from continuing to defy the international community.

As Rumsfeld spoke, the two figures at the epicentre of the Iraq crisis, the UN's chief weapons inspectors Dr Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei, were completing the first of two days of talks in Baghdad with Iraqi officials. After four hours of meetings, Blix said only that the talks had been 'useful and substantial'.

What the US feared could complicate the clarity of Iraq's non-compliance began to be felt yesterday, with Baghdad appearing to offer concessions on interviews with scientists and on the question of air surveillance by US spy planes. If their gestures continue, and new Iraqi 'assistance' is mentioned positively by Blix in his updated report to the UN on Friday, there may be pressure by many of the security council countries to give the inspectors more time.

If Blair in Washington last week persuaded the US on a second resolution on action, it will have to be delivered quickly. It is understood that the US has been opening its substantial chequebook to make it clear where future US economic aid packages and trade deals will go if political co-operation is forthcoming, especially among the countries currently sitting in the security council.

Blair will need to deal with all these issues when he speaks in Scotland next weekend.

Labour party officials will not confirm whether the Prime Minister will address the conference on Saturday or Sunday. His appearance at the conference was initially scheduled for Sunday but was was moved to Saturday. Last night a Labour spokesman said: 'The Prime Minister faces demonstrations wherever he goes and he does not alter his schedule to avoid anyone.' If, however, Blair does speak on Sunday his schedule will have been changed again.

Yesterday bookmakers William Hill slashed the odds on Blair standing down before the next general election from 10-1 to 5-1.