| A relative of a British soldier killed in Iraq with her son at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, for the memorial service. (AFP)
London, Oct. 10 (Reuters): Britain’s establishment gathered in a London cathedral today for a memorial service to soldiers killed in Iraq, both to honour the dead and to heal the divisions at home caused by a war many opposed.
Some victims’ relatives said Prime Minister Tony Blair had no moral right to attend the service for waging what they view as an unjustified war. But others said they drew comfort from the service, which was led by one of the war’s leading opponents, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Blair, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, the military’s top brass and families of the dead were among hundreds at the ceremony in St Paul’s Cathedral for the 51 British servicemen who have died in the Iraq war and its still bloody aftermath.
The responses of relatives of the dead mirrored the deep split in British society, which has been more or less evenly divided over the war, with strong passions on both sides.
“If it was not for Mr Blair there would be no need for a memorial service,” said Gordon Evans, 46, whose son Llewelyn died in a helicopter crash. “Looking back on the war, I feel now that he died in vain.”
But others said they were comforted.
“The service was very moving. I have never experienced anything like it before in my life,” said Peter Brierley whose son Shaun was killed in a crash in Kuwait said.
“Hopefully, there will have been enough prayers said to get the peace that we really should have around the world.”
The commitment of British troops to join the invasion of Iraq divided Britain has tarnished Blair’s reputation with many. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction — Blair’s main justification for the invasion — has given rise to cynicism about his motives and hurt Blair’s once high ratings.
The negative political fallout was heightened by the suicide of an arms expert who had been the source for a news report that the government “sexed up” intelligence to make the case for war.
In his sermon, Archbishop Williams acknowledged divisions over the war and said both sides of the debate deserved respect. “We are bound to face these contradictory feelings, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so,” he said. “Whatever the different judgments about the decision to go to war, we have to recognise the moral seriousness of this, and the dedication of those who carry out the decision.”
He urged the congregation to honour all “those swept up in the unplanned death and terror that all conflict brings.” Keen to avoid triumphalism, the government has said there will be no victory parade as occurred in Britain after previous conflicts such as the 1991 Gulf War and the 1982 Falklands War.
Security was tight at St Paul’s today, with officers visible on rooftops around the cathedral in central London. As Blair left the cathedral, a protester shouted an insult from behind a barricade. No other incidents were reported. According to Britain’s ministry of defence, 19 of the 51 soldiers who have died in Iraq were killed by “enemy action”.