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Cook article opens up UK fault lines

London, March 31: No prisoners are being taken — in the political war in Britain.

Robin Cook, who is emerging as a dangerous threat to Prime Minister Tony Blair, has attracted blistering enemy fire from his former colleagues in the Labour Cabinet for declaring in a weekend newspaper article: “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.”

The ministry of defence announced today that two more British soldiers, from the 40 Commando and the 212 Signal Squadron, respectively, had been killed in the latest fighting south of Basra. This brings the tally of British servicemen who have died so far in the conflict to 26, which is disproportionately high when compared with the 39 Americans who have been killed, given the US has deployed five times as many fighting men and women.

The issue of British casualties is an extremely sensitive subject, not because the figures are likely to embarrass Blair, but because the country is traditionally proud of servicemen who die in the battlefield.

Since Cook has served both as foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons before resigning from the government over the war, his words carry a great deal of authority. In an article in the Sunday Mirror, Cook had a go at President George W. Bush: “It is OK for Bush to say the war will go on for as long as it takes. He is sitting pretty in the comfort of Camp David protected by scores of security men to keep him safe.”

And also at Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, who is demonised in Britain as the leading hawk in the Bush administration: “We were told the Iraqi army would be so joyful to be attacked that it would not fight. A close colleague of US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld predicted the march to Baghdad would be ‘a cakewalk’. We were told Saddam’s troops would surrender. Personally, I would like to volunteer Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz to be ‘embedded’ alongside the journalists with the forward units.”

Commenting on the absence of a speedy victory, Cook wrote: “It was not meant to be like this. By the time we got to Baghdad, Saddam was supposed to have crumpled. A few days before I resigned I was assured that Saddam would be overthrown by his associates to save their own skins. But they would only do it ‘at 5 minutes past midnight’. It is now long past that time and Saddam is still there. To compensate, yesterday we blew up a statue of Saddam in Basra. A statue! It is not the statue that terrifies local people but the man himself and they know Saddam is still in control of Baghdad.”

Cook concluded: “Last week President Bush promised that ‘Iraqis will see the great compassion of the US’. They certainly do not see it now. They don’t see it in Baghdad. What they see are women and children killed when missiles fall on market places. They don’t see it in Basra. What they see is the suffering of their families with no water, precious little food, and no power to cook. There will be a long-term legacy of hatred for the West if Iraqis continue to suffer from the effects of the war we started.”

Cook’s article opened up fault lines in the government. He was attacked by David Blunkett, the home secretary, who 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.”

The Sun put the boot in more effectively when it said today in an editorial: “Robin Cook describes the war as ‘bloody and unnecessary’. Taking out the word ‘and’ gives you a good description of him. Cook reckons he might be the man to take on Gordon Brown for the leadership. Don’t waste your time, Robin. There’s not going to be a vacancy.”

Defence secretary Geoff Hoon, who is Rumsfeld’s counterpart but altogether more sophisticated, and Dr John Reid, the Labour Party chairman, accused Cook of “undermining” the confidence of the Iraqi people that Saddam Hussein would be overthrown.

The Mirror’s columnist, Paul Routledge, took the opposite view when he said today: “Robin Cook is spot on.”

In a radio interview, Cook appeared to backtrack when he explained: “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.”

He added: “I wasn’t in favour of starting this war, but having started this war, it’s important to win it. The worst possible outcome will be one which left Saddam there.”

Cook’s fortune is linked to the war. The worse it goes, the better it is for him. That is both his strength and his weakness.

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