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Britons ask if their government's support of the U.S. figured in the attacks


London death toll climbs to 52
The Iraq question: Britons ask if their government's support of the U.S. figured in the attacks
- Zachary Coile, Chronicle Staff Writer
www.sfgate.com
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

London -- Members of Parliament shouted approving chants of "Hear, hear!" when opposition Conservative party leader Michael Howard praised Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor government for its response to last week's deadly terror bombings

But on the streets of London and elsewhere, the bombings have rekindled a debate that has raged in Britain ever since Blair pledged to join President Bush in the invasion of Iraq. While virtually unanimous in their condemnation of the bombings, some Britons have begun to ask whether the country's role in the Iraq conflict helped bring about the worst attack on the British mainland since World War II.

"France hasn't had any attacks, has it?" said Liam Bennet, 53, who runs a diaper delivery service in west London near the Edgware Road subway station, site of one of the bombings. "They're not attacking the French because they made it clear they were not going to send troops to Iraq."

Since the bombings, the issue of Britain's role in Iraq has been largely taboo among politicians, with the exception of a few renegades such as former Labor Party MP George Galloway. Galloway, a longtime opponent of the war, created a stir last week when he said London residents had paid the price for the government's policies.

Blair was re-elected to a third term in May, but his Labor Party lost nearly 100 seats in Parliament largely because of voters' anger over the war in Iraq, analysts say. Much of the focus in the final days of the campaign was on the so-called Downing Street memo, which suggested that the Bush administration fixed intelligence about Iraq before the invasion, and cast doubt on the legality of the war.

Blair's government has largely ignored Galloway's remarks and similar criticisms, mostly from the far left of Britain's political spectrum. And while a majority of the public still opposes the war, pollsters say they don't believe Britons will assign blame for Thursday's attacks to Blair and will focus it instead on those who are found to have plotted and carried out the bombings.

Blair "might have a short-term boost as people rally around the government," said Mark Gill, head of political research at the MORI polling firm in London. "After 9/11, governments and ministers across Europe as well as America saw their ratings rise because people look to them for leadership in times of crisis."

Still, many Londoners interviewed Monday said they believed British involvement in the war had contributed to Thursday's attacks.

"I think it has played a part," said Sheila Stevens, 55, an administrator from northwest London. "I hope it wasn't just the war, but I do think it was part of what motivated it."

Many see parallels with the rail bombings in Madrid in March 2004, which came just three days before national elections and contributed to the defeat of the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a key U.S. ally. After the attacks, the country's newly elected Socialist Party prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, made good on a campaign pledge to start withdrawing Spain's troops from Iraq.

"That's their goal, to get us to pull our troops out," said Ali Yakubu, 43, a supermarket worker in north London. Yakubu said he strongly opposes a sudden withdrawal of troops. "We should not leave Iraq in a mess. We started the job, and we need to finish it," he said.

Other Britons said they believe the bombings last week would have happened regardless of whether Britain joined the U.S-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many see it is as part of a campaign aimed at destabilizing Western countries.

"I think it was a follow-up to 9/11," said Nicholas Walker, 58, a biology tutor from Yorkshire, explaining that the British capital, like New York, is a symbol of the West to the terrorists. "These people are full of vengeance and aggression, they are fanatics."

A group calling itself the Secret Brotherhood of al Qaeda of Europe, which claimed responsibility for the attacks in a Web site message, said the attacks in London were a response to "the massacres Britain committed in Iraq and Afghanistan." The group also threatened attacks in Denmark and Italy if those nations do not withdraw their troops from Iraq.

Britain has 8,500 soldiers in Iraq, the second-largest force in Iraq after the United States' 135,000 troops. A memo leaked to the Daily Mail newspaper this weekend suggested that even before the attacks, Britain planned cut its troop levels to 3,000 by the middle of next year. British officials have since said no decisions have been made.

Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said Friday that he planned to begin withdrawing the first of his 3,000 troops from Iraq in September. Berlusconi acknowledged that his country was potentially at risk of an attack.

"Even intelligence from other countries shows the three Bs -- Bush, Berlusconi and Blair -- are considered the most exposed to this type of risk, " he said.

But many of the Britons interviewed said they saw the prospect of withdrawing British forces as capitulation to terrorists. Even some who oppose the war suggested it would do little to reduce the threat of another attack on British soil.

"I don't think it would make any difference at all," said Robert Lench, 50, a manager at a construction firm in London. "I think even if we took British troops out tomorrow, they would find some other reason to fight us."

Bush, in a speech to the FBI academy in Virginia on Monday, expressed his view that the terrorists were trying to get Western nations to retreat and withdraw.

Bill Meyer, 55, a researcher in adult education from Huntington, about 50 miles north of London, said Thursday's attacks only reaffirmed his view that Blair and Bush made the right decision by invading Iraq.

"We've done the right thing by getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime," Meyer said. "You can't negotiate with people like that."

E-mail Zachary Coile at zcoile@sfchronicle.com

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