LONDON – Prime Minister Tony Blair said Saturday it would be "an act of humanity" to depose Saddam Hussein and insisted signs of Iraqi cooperation with weapons inspectors were suspect.
"Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity," Blair told a conference of his ruling Labor Party in Glasgow, Scotland as he laid out a "moral case" for military action against Iraq.
"It is leaving him there that is inhumane. That is why I do not shrink from military action should that indeed be necessary."
Blair said Iraq's recent concessions "are suspect," though he still believed the crisis could be solved peacefully through the United Nations. Weapons inspectors would be given more time, he said, but he called on the international community not to shy from the possibility of war.
"If we show weakness now, if we allow the plea for more time to become just an excuse for prevarication until the moment for action passes, then it will not only be Saddam who is repeating history," said Blair, to muted applause from the delegates, many of whom oppose war without U.N. backing.
"The menace, and not just from Saddam, will grow; the authority of the U.N. will be lost; and the conflict when it comes will be more bloody," Blair said.
The prime minister, who faced a major anti-war rally in London Saturday as part of a global day of protest, said he understood concerns about military action.
"The moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam," Blair said.
Blair referred to deaths from Iraq's conflicts under Saddam Hussein, including the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and bloody crackdowns on Iraq's minorities. He said those deaths outnumbered the protesters in London's streets.
"If 500,000 people are on the march, that is less than the number of deaths Saddam is responsible for. If one million people are on the march, that is still less than the number of people who died in wars that he started," he added to applause.
The strongest applause, however, was reserved for Blair's comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "There will be no stability in the Middle East until there is a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, based on a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state."
Blair's speech came a day after the chief U.N. inspectors' reports gave fresh encouragement to opponents of military action.
Chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei avoided harsh criticism of the Iraqi regime when they reported to the U.N. Security Council. The majority of council members cited the reports of improved Iraqi cooperation to call for renewed efforts to peacefully disarm Saddam.
Blair was skeptical of Iraq's intentions, however.
"To anyone familiar with Saddam's tactics of deception and evasion, there is a weary sense of deja vu," Blair said. "As ever, at the last minute, concessions are made. The concessions are suspect, unfortunately the weapons are real."
Although Blair has enthusiastically rallied behind Washington's tough stance on Iraq, opposition to war in Britain is strong. Opinion polls indicate a large majority of Britons oppose military action against Saddam's regime without U.N. backing.
Several senior Labor lawmakers planned to take part in Saturday's rally in London and have been sharply critical of the prime minister's passionate support of President Bush.
Fifty-seven lawmakers, most from Labor, signed a motion Thursday demanding Britain stay out of a war unless it is authorized by Parliament. Ministers have promised lawmakers a vote on any war, but not necessarily before fighting starts.
Labor chairman John Reid acknowledged Friday there was "widespread anxiety" in the party, but said leaders have a duty to lead "when they believe this country and the world to be in peril."