BRIGHTON, England – Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) won the backing of his Labour Party (search) on Thursday to keep British troops in Iraq, avoiding a humiliating defeat that would have undermined his premiership.
Although resentment over the war still simmers among delegates, Blair emerged from his party's five-day convention scratched but intact, and looking ahead to national elections expected next year.
Labour members voted overwhelmingly on a show of hands to support the government's position that its troops were in Iraq with the backing of the United Nations (search) and the agreement of the interim Iraqi government.
More than 85 percent of delegates voted to overturn a grassroots motion that demanded Blair set an early date for withdrawing British troops. A defeat would not have altered government policy but would have been an embarrassing blow to Blair, who has battled to unite his party and focus on winning a third term in power.
"I know that there are those in this party and in our country that opposed our intervention in Iraq. I respect their opinion," Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon (search) told the conference in a closing day debate on Britain's role in Iraq. "But whatever your views, we must now work to defeat terrorism. Now is the time to unite, to help the Iraqi people rebuild their country, their economy, their way of life."
The conference in the southern coastal resort of Brighton was intended as a springboard for national elections, widely expected in May. Ministers announced a plethora of new policies they hope will appeal to the electorate: an increase in affordable child care provision; longer maternity leave; and more community officers to support police.
But, like last year, the conference was overshadowed by the war. Two British soldiers died in an ambush on their convoy near the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, bringing the total killed in Iraq to 67. British contractor Kenneth Bigley (search), held hostage by Islamic militants in Iraq, appeared Wednesday in video footage released to the Arab news network Al-Jazeera, begging from inside his cage for Blair to intervene to save his life.
Thursday's vote was an important show of support for Blair, whose popularity has nose-dived since backing the U.S.-led war. It also endorsed his government's view that troops must stay in Iraq to help the transition to democracy. Britain, with its 9,000 troops there, is the largest contingent in the multinational force behind the United States.
In his conference speech Tuesday, Blair admitted that British intelligence on the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was wrong, but pointedly refused to apologize for toppling Saddam Hussein, insisting the world was safer with him in prison.
But the usually bullish and defiant prime minister was contrite. "I'm like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong," he said, urging delegates to believe that he went to war to protect Britain's security.
Although winning the votes Thursday, anger over the war and concern about the unrelenting bloodshed in Iraq was apparent during the debate.
"Some people argue that our withdrawal will lead to a bloodbath, but the bloodbath is already happening," said delegate Pat Healy, calling for troops to be pulled out.