Bring it on

As the British election campaign enters its final week, opinion polls suggest another huge victory for Prime Minister Tony Blair. He tells Anil Bhoyrul what his re-election will mean for the Arab world.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  May 1, 2005

Bring it on|~|BLAIR-200.jpg|~||~| SHORTLY AFTER 2pm last Tuesday, British prime minister Tony Blair arrived at a South London school, one of five stops during the day’s election campaign schedule. It had been arranged several weeks in advance, and the expected cheering from youngsters would undoubtedly deliver great television for Blair. But just as Blair entered the school yard, something went horribly wrong, as a chorus of “boos” rang out from over 200 school children. Was Blair’s seemingly golden touch finally falling apart? Not quite. “They weren’t booing, they were saying “boom”. That’s an old fashioned way of saying ‘hooray’. These kids were all cheering the Prime Minister, it just didn’t sound that way,” explained his chief of staff Jonathan Powell. It appears that Blair can do absolutely nothing wrong – even managing to claim boos are cheers. With less than a week to go to polling day, the campaign of his main opponent, Conservative leader Michael Howard, is in tatters. Every single opinion poll points to another victory for Blair, the only question being how big. But while Blair’s opponents back home continue to snipe at him over the Iraq war, which has undoubtedly cost him dearly in votes, Arab leaders are likely to welcome the election of Blair for a third consecutive time. Blair himself told Arabian Business: “Britain has been building a very strong relationship with the Arab world, and by that I mean all Arab countries. Not just in terms of increasing trade, but strong political ties. We have a huge role to play in the peace process in Israel and Palestine, and yes, we shall have a part to play when it comes to both Syria and Iran. But our strongest weapon always has been, and always will be, diplomacy.” First on the agenda for a re-elected Blair government is certain to be Iraq. The US and Britain claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), using this as the reason for their 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ironically, as Blair wraps up his election campaign, the search for WMDs has also been wrapped up. Last week the US chief weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, has said inquiries into weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have “gone as far as feasible”. Duelfer also said an official transfer of WMDs to Syria ahead of the Iraq war was not likely. The CIA adviser reported last year that neither expected stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, nor evidence of recent production had been found. Blair himself is in no mood for apologising, explaining: “I can’t say sorry we removed Saddam. No, if you’re asking me other things I’ve got wrong over the past eight years, I’ve already said there are certain things that any government gets wrong. I suppose I’ve had my share of those.” He adds: “Some, not all, of that intelligence was wrong. But the decision I had to take at the time was whether as a result of that intelligence we could conclude Saddam was in breach of United Nations resolutions, and I concluded he was. And I may say the evidence is that he indeed was in breach of UN resolutions.” So what next? Iraq’s transitional government, led by Shia leader Ibrahim Jaafari, has been unable to form a united cabinet, with out-going prime minister Iyad Allawi bidding to re-join the cabinet. The transitional government’s main task will be to oversee the drafting of a permanent Iraqi constitution and to pave the way for elections in December. Blair’s advisors say there is absolutely no question of British troops coming home before then. In the meantime, it is expected that a re-elected Blair would divert more resources into the Iraqi infrastructure — it remain a country plagued with insecurity, lack of power and other basic utilities. “If we can show the Iraqi people that life is now better with Saddam gone, than I believe that peace will, in the longer term, be secured,” Blair himself says. Surprisingly, it may be in neighbouring Iran that Blair will find more success. Last year, he appeared to join forces with President Bush’s definition of Iran as being part if the “axis of evil”. “It certainly does sponsor terrorism. There’s no doubt about that at all,” Blair told a parliamentary committee, adding: “I hope very much that if we can make progress in the Middle East, that Iran realises that it’s got an obligation to help that, not hinder it.” For the time being, Iran has suspended all uranium enrichment-related activities to fulfil its part of a deal clinched in November with the Europeans, in hopes of getting trade, security and technology concessions. But while the war mongering continues in Washington, Blair’s aides say he is convinced a diplomatic solution can be found to any looming crisis. Significantly, Former Iranian president and cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has indicated he plans to stand in June’s presidential elections. He has twice been president of Iran in the 1990s and is currently head of the Expediency Council — a powerful arbitration body. In the complicated factional politics of Iran, he is categorised as a pragmatic conservative, someone who backs private enterprise and is in theory willing to engage with the West, but he is a conservative in terms of domestic social policy. More to the point, as one Blair aide explains: “He is someone we can do business with.” Another leader Blair is likely to “do business with” is Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. While Israeli premier Ariel Sharon was being invited to President Bush is ranch in Texas in April for cosy chats, Blair’s own diplomatic skills are being honed towards Abbas. The two met at the peace conference in London earlier this year, and the British prime minister is, according to advisors, taking on the role of “pushing” Abbas into totally reigning in the rogue elements of the Palestinian military. Two weeks ago Bush issued an unusually stern public warning to Ariel Sharon against plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The censure, delivered during a visit to Bush’s Texas ranch that was to have been a reward for the Israeli prime minister, is the strongest sign so far of Washington’s concern that a settlement expansion could wreck Bush’s road map for Middle East peace. “I told the prime minister of my concern that Israel not undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudices final status negotiations,” Bush said. Blair meanwhile says: “What the Americans, and I think the international community is now coming behind this consensus, is that a viable independent Palestinian state means viable (a) in terms of territory, but (b) in terms of the institutions of statehood. Now both of those things have got to be got right, and the President’s [Bush] commitment to a contiguous Palestinian state was very important from that perspective, it laid to rest any doubts that the Palestinian state might be the so-called Swiss cheese solution, you know little pockets here and there. At the same time there is no doubt in my mind at all that a viable Palestinian state has got to be more than just viability in terms of territory, it has to have a sustainable democracy, the political institutions to go along with it, proper security structures and proper economic institutions.” Blair’s position on the international stage, has never been more secure. While George W. Bush prefers to send his secretary of state to do his foreign work, Blair has always preferred to personally go on trips. Few foreign leaders are likely to have even heard of Blair’s main challenger Michael Howard. And that is likely to remain the case for at least another four years. ||**||

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