Mar 31 2003

By Paul Gilfeather, Whitehall Editor


TONY Blair yesterday ordered senior ministers to nail war rebel Robin Cook.

The PM is furious at Mr Cook's latest attack on the conflict, in which he called for British troops to be pulled out of Iraq.

In an article for our sister paper, the Sunday Mirror, the ex-Foreign Secretary said: "I have already had my fill of this bloody and unnecessary war.

"I want our troops home and I want them home before more of them are killed."

Later, Mr Cook appeared to water down his comments, claiming in a Radio 4 interview that he wanted Britain to "see the job through".

He added: "I am not in favour of abandoning the battlefield and that is not my position.

"There can be no question at this stage of letting Saddam off the hook."

But he added Mr Blair should recognise what the consequences of a siege of Baghdad would be.

He warned of a "very serious risk of humanitarian tragedy".

Mr Cook's outspoken remarks, particularly those in the Sunday Mirror, stunned Downing Street and triggered a brutal response.

Ministers have been told to pull out all the stops to under-mine their former colleague.

The Daily Mirror has learned that the attempts to discredit him will include distributing speeches he made as Foreign Secretary supporting action against Saddam.

First to stick the knife in yesterday was Home Secretary David Blunkett.

He suggested that Mr Cook, who quit as Leader of the House in protest at the war, had now lost all credibility.

He said: "Robin resigned with great dignity, put his argument with great force. But it's hard to retain that dignity or force if you advocate capitulation after just 10 days. I don't think other members of Parliament will take that view.

"We have to back those who are in conflict in bringing down Saddam and we have to ask everyone to answer the question, 'Who do you wish to win?'."

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon was also sent out to try to demolish Mr Cook's case. "I don't accept it for a moment,' he said. 'We set out very clearly the objectives of the campaign at the start of the military operation.

"I also said to the House of the Commons they should not believe the observations of armchair generals, commentators who were suggesting this was a short campaign."

Welsh Secretary Peter Hain joined the attack. He said: "I do have to say bluntly that anybody saying we should go home now, after the sacrifices men have made by losing their lives, after their families suffering - what would result is Saddam stronger than ever, more able to threaten with his chemical and biological weapons. Now that is a really terrible outcome, surely?"

Despite the onslaught, anti-war Labour MPs rallied round Mr Cook.

Ex-Armed Forces Minister Doug Henderson echoed his call for troops to be brought home.

He said the Government must remove itself from the "hellish" situation in Iraq to avoid another potential Vietnam.

Earlier, Mr Cook expressed his "serious concern" over US threats to Iran and Syria - and criticised American Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

He said: "I can't think of anything worse for the present situation than convincing the neighbours of Iraq that they are next on the list."

Mr Cook also took a swipe at President Bush for "sitting pretty in the comfort of Camp David" while Allied forces risked death in Iraq.

He added: "It is easy to show you are resolute when you are not one of the guys in a sandstorm peering around for snipers.

"Nobody should start a war on the assumption that the enemy's army will co-operate. But that is exactly what President Bush has done."

He went on: "There will be a long-term legacy of hatred for the West if the Iraqi people continue to suffer from the effects of the war we started."

A Downing Street spokesman said yesterday: "Robin Cook has a well-known position on Iraq and it is not one that the Government shares."

The row came after bodies of the first British troops to die in the war arrived back in Britain.

The Union flag-draped coffins of 10 servicemen were flown into RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

After a sombre 50-minute ceremony watched by relatives and attended by Prince Andrew and Geoff Hoon, they were taken to a temporary mortuary in a gymnasium at the airbase.

A team of five pathologists began the initial post-mortem examinations.

Eight of the coffins were those of British servicemen who died in a US helicopter crash.

The other two contained the bodies of Flt Lt Dave Williams and Flt Lt Kevin Main who were killed by friendly fire from an RAF Tornado.