TONY Blair faced further pressure over the Iraq war yesterday as war crime charges were laid against three British soldiers and opinion polls confirmed that British voters believed the war has encouraged terrorism against Britain.
As his “coalition of the willing” ally John Howard arrived in Britain for official talks, the British Prime Minister was once again grappling with more acute political problems over Iraq than his Australian counterpart has faced.
Both men have been comfortably re-elected since the war began in 2003 but Mr Blair has faced more persistent domestic opposition to the war and a series of difficult inquiries and rebellions within his own Labour Party.
In the most serious allegations yet against British officers in Iraq, 11 soldiers have been charged by British army prosecutors over the deaths of two civilians detained in Basra in 2003.
Three of the soldiers face the war crime charge of inhuman treatment of detainees, which might have ended up in the Hague’s International Criminal Court if Britain’s own military prosecutors had not pursued the charges.
The charges came shortly after an independent report found that almost 25,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the two years after the launch of the war, meaning a toll of 34 a day – the equivalent of a Bali bombing each week, or a central London bombing every two days.
An opinion poll has suggested that most British voters feel Britain’s role in Iraq was one of the factors behind the July 7 central London bombing, leading to angry denials by Mr Blair and his Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw.
Mr Blair yesterday expressed frustration with arguments that the carnage in Iraq had made it easier for terrorists to recruit young British Muslims by feeding their sense of alienation and resentment towards their own Government.
The terrorists and their supporters would use Iraq as an “excuse” to justify their actions but their hatred of the West pre-dated the Iraq war, he said.
“People can debate these issues about the links and what are the superficial causes and symptoms. The fundamental causes, I’m afraid, I think are a lot deeper and we need to address those,” he said.
“We have got to be very careful that we don’t enter into a situation where we think if we make some compromise on some aspect of foreign policy, these people are going to change.
“They are not going to change. They will just say ‘They are on the run, let’s step it up’,” he said.
“They will use any issue to recruit people,” he said. “They will recruit people over Iraq, they were recruited over Afghanistan, they were recruited over Palestine.
“When people talk about the links between Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine and what has happened, yes it is true these people will use these things as an excuse.
“But let’s be clear. If it wasn’t that, it would be something else, and nothing – but nothing – justifies what they are doing.
“What we have got to be very careful of is getting into their perverted logic, which says even if people abhor the bombings in London, nonetheless we understand what has happened because of what has happened in Iraq.
“No, what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan is that ordinary Muslim people are trying to make democracy work and these people, instead of helping them, are trying to destroy the prospects of that democracy.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who met Mr Blair yesterday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, backed the British leader by denying that the London bombings were in any way linked to Britain’s military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr Straw later rejected claims in a leaked British intelligence document that the Iraq war had increased the danger of terror attacks in Britain.
The Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre paper, leaked to The New York Times, said the Government was warned before the July 7 attacks that the presence of British troops in Iraq would stimulate “terrorist- related activity in the UK”.
“It may be a comfortable thought by some people to think all this follows the military action in Iraq. It does not,” Mr Straw said.