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Blair Looks to Poll After Making Apology

Iraq will not be the decisive factor for Britons in the next election, Tony Blair said Wednesday, as his party pondered the prime minister's conditional apology over the war. 

Blair and other Labor Party leaders were trying to shift the focus from Iraq to domestic policy on the penultimate day of their annual conference.


They will showcase policies on crime, asylum and immigration -- all key battlegrounds for an election expected in May -- when Home Secretary David Blunkett addresses the party faithful in the seaside town of Brighton.


These are the sorts of policies Blair hopes will see off his Conservative opponents.


Asked whether Iraq could cost him a third term in power, the prime minister told GMTV: "I believe actually, when you come to an election, people will vote on other issues.


"They will vote on strength of the economy, record numbers of jobs, huge investment going into health and education."


Violence in Iraq, where two more British soldiers died on Tuesday, and the fate of a British hostage being held there have cast a shadow over Labor's meeting in Brighton.


Iraq has ravaged Blair's public trust ratings although polls show he should still win re-election.


"The time to trust the politician most is actually when they're courting popularity least," Blair told BBC radio, again defending himself over Iraq.


"Because then they're doing something that, whatever the political price they're going to pay for it, they actually believe in."


Conditional apology


Blair offered a partial apology to his party on Tuesday, admitting intelligence he used to justify war, which said Saddam Hussein had banned weapons ready to use, was wrong.


But he refused to say sorry for toppling Saddam, leaving some Labor members won over, others not.


Blair admitted the word "sorry" was in an earlier draft of his keynote speech but only in reference to Iraq dividing national opinion, not the war itself. Either way, the key word was removed at the last minute.


"The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons ... has turned out to be wrong," Blair told Labor's annual conference, his nearest yet to a "mea culpa."


"The problem is I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong but I can't, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam," he said.


"The world is a better place with Saddam in prison not in power."


Blair's speech was interrupted twice by protesters, one yelling that the prime minister "had blood on his hands," others opposing a planned ban on fox-hunting. They were bundled out of the hall.


The party faces another test today when voters in the northeastern town of Hartlepool choose a new member of parliament following the departure of Blair ally Peter Mandelson to a EU commissioner job in Brussels.


Also today, the party conference will debate Iraq with possibly embarrassing votes for Blair.


(China Daily September 30, 2004)

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