April 27, 2004
By George Jones, Political Editor
Tony Blair's approach to Iraq and the Middle East was savaged last night by 52 senior diplomats, who questioned his support for America's "doomed" policy in the region.
Their unprecedented onslaught came as the Government confirmed it was discussing sending more troops to Iraq to fill the gap left by Spain's withdrawal.
The former ambassadors, high commissioners and governors called on Mr Blair to stop supporting President George W Bush's policies unless he could persuade the US to rethink its approach.
The diplomats, among them former ambassadors to Iraq, Israel and the UN, told Mr Blair they had "watched with deepening concern the policies you have followed on the Arab-Israel problem and Iraq, in close co-operation with the United States.
"We feel the time has come to make our anxieties public, in the hope that they will be addressed in Parliament and will lead to a fundamental reassessment," they said in the open letter sent to Mr Blair.
Although all the signatories are no longer serving diplomats, their views are almost certainly shared at the highest reaches of the Foreign Office and will be deeply embarrassing for Mr Blair.
It is a blow to his authority while he faces unprecedented fire over the about-turn on a European referendum and growing voter discontent over escalating violence in Iraq.
The letter is believed to have been prompted by Mr Blair's recent emergency talks with Mr Bush in Washington.
He followed the president's lead in backing Israel's plan for withdrawal from the Gaza Strip while maintaining some settlements on the West Bank.
Critics said this effectively killed the internationally-agreed "road map" to peace.
The diplomats said the new policies approved by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, and Mr Bush were "one sided and illegal" and would cost yet more lives.
"Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it, abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land," the diplomats told Mr Blair.
They were highly critical of the conduct of the war in Iraq, saying it had shown there was no effective plan for "the post-Saddam settlement".
Those with experience of the area had predicted the occupation of Iraq would meet "serious and stubborn resistance" - as had been proved.
In a rebuff to Mr Blair, the letter said describing resistance as led by "terrorists, fanatics and foreigners" was neither convincing nor helpful. It condemned the loss of life caused by America's heavy handed tactics.
While acknowledging that Britain should work as closely as possible with the UN, the diplomats questioned whether it was in Britain's interest for Mr Blair to continue to give such strong backing to Mr Bush.
Mr Blair must start exercising "real influence" as a matter of the highest urgency. "If that is unacceptable or unwelcome, there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure."
The signatories read like a roll call of the higher echelons of former diplomats, including Sir Crispin Tickell, Britain's permanent representative at the UN from 1987 to 1990.
Oliver Miles, a former ambassador to Greece, is one of the letter's co-ordinators. He said their objective was not to damage Mr Blair politically but to strengthen the hand of those pushing for a change of policy.
"It is an indication of our serious concern that what is probably the biggest ever such collective group has gone straight to government in this way," he said.
Mr Blair's spokesman promised a response in due course. "Our objectives in Iraq and the Palestinian conflict remain stability, peace and freedom in the Middle East."
The Ministry of Defence confirmed that Britain was discussing "a range of options" with coalition partners to send more troops to Iraq.
With Spain planning to withdraw its 1,400 soldiers and violence escalating, ministers are considering sending up to 2,000 more troops to join 7,500 already there.
Nicholas Soames, the Tory defence spokesman, said that if more troops were sent it would mark a "step change" in Britain's military commitment. His call for an emergency Commons statement today was rejected.
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