LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair recognizes he has a tough task ahead to persuade Britons to support war on Iraq. In a Feb. 6 television program, he demonstrated that the case against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a strong one and emphasized the dangers of allowing the Iraqi dictator to defy the United Nations. He also pointed out that the threat that weapons of mass destruction present to Britain is a real one.

No fair-minded person could have doubted his sincerity or his determination not to allow the fear of political unpopularity to deter him from action.

Far from being a warmonger, Blair is concerned about the civilian and military casualties that would result in an Iraq war. He is determined, if it is at all possible, to get a second U.N. resolution passed that would authorize the use of force. He persuasively argues that the alternative of extending and strengthening sanctions would be more damaging to the livelihood of ordinary Iraqis. Moreover, economic sanctions, which are flouted by unscrupulous governments and merchants, are rarely effective.

But there remain serious doubts in Britain about the present strategy toward Iraq. The first concerns the U.N. If the efforts of America and Britain to seek another U.N. resolution are frustrated and they then decide on war, such an action will be interpreted by many as having been taken in defiance of the U.N. and will clearly damage its authority in future conflicts.

On the other hand, if any of the five permanent members of the Security Council “unreasonably” (to use Blair’s term) exercise a veto on further effective action against Iraq, this will also undermine the authority of the world body as it could be taken as a signal that governments can safely thwart U.N. resolutions.

The split in European opinion between France and Germany, which are calling for restraint and are unwilling at this stage to accept the need for armed intervention, and Britain, Spain, Italy and five other European states, which think that Europe should back the United States, is serious, although it could be temporary. It bodes ill for the development of a common European foreign policy and is a blow for the future of European unity. The split is also reflected in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and is damaging the alliance’s effectiveness.

But perhaps the most difficult issues are in the Middle East. It is far from clear whether the Americans have thought through all the aspects of an armed attack on Iraq and its aftermath.

Despite the U.S. military’s sophisticated technology, it is hard to see how an attack could be confined to a surgical operation to remove Hussein. If a conflict becomes unavoidable, significant casualties seem likely. Even relatively small numbers of U.S. and British military casualties would be sure to fuel antiwar sentiment in both countries.

Likewise, a blood bath of Iraqi civilians would arouse serious anti-American and anti-Western feelings throughout the Middle East and Asia. Terrorist activities would be stepped up in the U.S. and Europe. The large number of arrests of alleged terrorists in European countries in recent weeks confirms that terrorist cells have made their preparations.

Iraq is a huge country. The imposition, after the conflict is over, of a U.S. or Western military government, while not impossible, would require the commitment of huge resources. But there is little sign that the Americans and others would be willing to shoulder these burdens. So far, a credible alternative to the Iraqi regime has not appeared.

The Iraqi people have suffered many privations, and the country’s infrastructure has been allowed to decay while more palaces are built for Hussein. Iraqi oil should be able to provide funds for rebuilding Iraq, but Hussein in his madness might attempt to destroy the oil wells. Moreover, even if he does not, it will take time to repair the supply system. In the meantime, Iraq will require substantial aid that America may not be willing to provide. The allegation that the Iraqi issue is about oil is ludicrous.

Some U.S. Republicans appear to believe that democratic institutions and human rights can be imposed by conquest. They also seem to think that Iraq’s neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Kuwait, will also be persuaded to abjure autocratic forms of government and accept democratic norms. Many Europeans find such ideas unrealistic.

The most serious issue, that of finding a solution to the problem of Israel and the Palestinians, has, unfortunately, been neglected by the U.S. government. To many Europeans, the failure of the Americans to agree to the publication of a “road map” pointing toward a solution is incomprehensible.

At first it seemed that the Americans did not want to publish anything that might be construed as being designed to influence the Israel election. Now that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been returned to power the only American excuse for opposing publication seems to be that it would detract from a solution on Iraq. No sensible person in Europe approves of Palestinian suicide attacks on Israel, but they also do not believe that Sharon’s strategy of brutal retaliation against Palestinians can bring Israel closer to peace. Both sides will have to compromise, and the sooner they get back to the negotiating table without preconditions the better.

Many in Europe fear that an armed conflict would exacerbate tensions throughout the world between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. This is just what al-Qaeda wants, as it would play into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists.

It now seems that the only way an armed conflict can be avoided is a decision by Hussein to cooperate fully with weapons inspectors. This means revealing what happened to his stocks of biological and chemical weapons. Any stocks still existing must be destroyed under international observation.

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