Blair Accuses Iran of Arming Middle East Insurgents
Hélène Mulholland, The Guardian:
Tony Blair today directly accused Iran of supplying weapons used to attack British troops in Basra. In a statement on the latest Middle East crisis, the prime minister said the same weapons used in Iraq were being given to Hizbullah to wage war against Israel.
Speaking in the Commons after returning from the G8 summit in St Petersburg, Mr Blair said: "Hizbullah is supported by Iran and Syria, by the former in weapons, weapons incidentally very similar if not identical to those used against British troops in Basra, by the latter in many different ways and by both financially." READ MORE
Mr Blair's official spokesman said later: "What he is simply saying is stating the obvious which is that the rockets that have been fired into Israel have been analysed as being from that source.
"We have compared that with what has been happening around Basra. That obviously has implications."
In the commons, Mr Blair resisted Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campell's call for the UN security council to demand an "unconditional and immediate ceasefire" at its Thursday meeting.
"How will it be possible to insert an international force unless there is a ceasefire? Such a force can hardly fight its way in," Sir Menzies told Mr Blair.
The prime minister said the only way to get a solution was to put in place a strategy to calm the situation. "We want to see a ceasefire and an end to hostilities. The only way it is going to happen is that it happens on all sides," he told Sir Menzies.
Of the stabilisation force, he said: "Of course, they cannot fight their way in. We need to have some sort of buffer force between Lebanon and Israel to ensure we do not get the same problem breaking out again."
On the question of whether Israel's response was proportionate, Mr Blair said: "The underlying reasons are that there are groups who have decided at this moment to take steps which completely disregard the welfare of the Lebanese or the Palestinians down in Gaza."
Tory leader David Cameron said that there was an urgent need for concerted action to deal with the crisis.
The prime minister said there would be an intense effort made in this direction by the security council on Thursday.
"The issue to do with the stabilisation force will be debated there," he said. "Of course it will take time to build up such a force and we need the circumstances to be conducive for them to be able to go into southern Lebanon.
"Even if we manage to stabilise the existing situation and get it calmed down, we are still going to be at risk, unless there is some force put in there, of a recrudescence of what has happened, happening again."
Mr Blair said diplomatic pressure would be kept up on Syria and on Iran to give effect to their international obligation, as he condemned the actions of extremists.
Many in the Middle East believed in democracy, liberty and tolerance but "ranged against them are extremists who believe the opposite, who believe in fundamentalist states and war, not against Israel's actions but against its existence", he said.
Mr Blair also told MPs the government was acting "as quickly as we possibly can" amid complaints that other European countries were moving more swiftly to rescue their citizens.
The first evacuation of British nationals by ship was taking place today, with six Royal Navy ships in the region or heading for it, the prime minister said.
The first batch of just over 100 Britons was picked up by HMS Gloucester, one of two Type 42 destroyers already stationed off the Lebanese coast.
Responding to criticism that France had already removed around 1,000 of its citizens compared with Britain's 60, Mr Blair said: "We have acted as quickly as we possibly can. We have taken out of Lebanon the first 60 people - that was done yesterday."
He told MPs that 5,000 of the estimated 22,000 UK nationals in Lebanon could be evacuated by the end of the week.
The advice to British people caught up in the violence was to stay put and remain in contact with the British Embassy.
Mr Blair said the "tragic and terrible events" in the Middle East had "overshadowed" the summit in St Petersburg.
"For days we have seen the innocent killed by terrorism as a deliberate act, by Hizbullah; civilians killed in the course of military retaliation by Israel, and the disintegration of our hopes for stability in this, the most fraught area of dispute in the world."
Tory leader David Cameron described the situation as a "deeply troubling time" for the Middle East, with a very real danger of the conflict escalating.
He said the public "want and expect concerted action"" and added that it was clear that the influence of Iran and Syria on Hezbollah was "deeply destructive" and must be addressed.
Earlier today, the foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, accused Hizbullah of triggering the current crisis in the Middle East.
Ms Beckett said Hizbullah fighters had poured "petrol on the bonfire" by kidnapping Israeli soldiers and firing rockets into the country.
She told BBC Radio 4 that there was a "very real anxiety" that Iran and Syria might be ultimately responsible for the outbreak of fighting.
Her comments came as the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, urged the international community to send a stabilisation force to the region.
Speaking after talks in Brussels with the EU commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, Mr Annan said: "When I talk of action I am not talking of statements or exhortations, but real, actual, specific, concrete actions."
A stabilisation force was proposed by Mr Annan and Mr Blair during the G8 summit in St Petersburg, and discussed by EU foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday.
Mr Annan said he wanted to put forward a package of proposals for the UN security council to consider so that a process of putting troops on the ground could begin "to act as a stabilisation force and urge a cessation of violence".
The details would have to be worked out "including the concept and the size", but he anticipated a force "considerably larger" than 2,000-strong, adding: "I would expect contributions from European Union countries and countries in other regions."
Mr Barroso added: "If this stabilisation force is established, I know some member states are ready to contribute. It is up to them to say it. Some have already expressed a willingness to contribute to a stabilisation force."
He said the EU believed it could help avoid a further escalation of violence, while also working on humanitarian aid measures in Gaza and Lebanon.
Mrs Beckett told the Today programme that the promise of a stabilisation force could help to create the conditions necessary for an "assured peace" in the region, but appeared to rule out sending in soldiers until hostilities had ceased.
We are certainly talking to the UN and to others about whether that is a viable option," she said. "No-one is talking about sending in a force to create a peace."
However, she also said "it would be much more difficult to get a ceasefire" unless Israel could be reassured that Lebanon would be effectively policed.
A Foreign Office spokesman said arrangements for removing Britons were "ongoing". "As you can imagine, it is an enormous logistical task and obviously we have got to make sure we are not endangering people by attempting to take people out before preparations are ready," he said.
Asked whether he intended to travel to the Middle East on a diplomatic mission himself - as he appeared to suggest to the US president, George Bush, yesterday during a conversation that both thought was private - Mr Blair replied: "If we want to bring this situation to a better place, the way we're going to do so is to bring about the condition where a cessation of hostilities occurs."
Jolie Boyle, a DJ from Essex who is trapped in a Beirut hotel, today accused British Embassy staff in Lebanon of being "useless about everything".
She said nobody from the embassy told her she could have joined those evacuated last night on a Greek cruise ship organised by French diplomats.
Ms Boyle told BBC Radio Five Live: "I could have got on that boat, being part of the European Union.
"The British Embassy here in Beirut don't answer the phone. It just rings and rings and rings, and they don't answer".