LONDON – Prime Minister Tony Blair took the debate on Iraq Thursday to some of his youngest critics — a studio audience for MTV.
The television music network hosted a 60-minute forum featuring the unflappable British leader getting grilled by young adults from around the world.
Blair greeted the audience by saying he was looking forward to a "nice discussion." But it quickly became clear he was not in for an easy ride.
Niklas Ergandt, 25, of Sweden set the tone early. "I'm able to produce anthrax in my bathroom," he said. "Why don't you bomb Sweden?"
The audience accused Blair of showing "absolute disdain" for public opinion and the people of Iraq. He was also charged with potentially making terrorism worse by planning to attack Iraq and failing to provide sufficient evidence to support military action.
Blair used the platform to restate his views on the need to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) from power and destroy his weapons, rebutting suggestions that his pro-American stance was motivated by a desire for oil and that a war would kill up to half a million Iraqi civilians.
In the panel discussion — titled "Is War the Answer?" — Ergandt was joined by 39 other young people, including Iraqis, Americans and Britons.
Blair said his own response to the question posed by the forum was "No, war is not the first answer." He denied there was a rush to conflict.
But the prime minister made it clear that even if several countries opposed a second U.N. resolution authorizing a war against Iraq, he would be ready to take military action against Saddam.
The encounter — due to air in Britain on Friday before it is broadcast in Europe, Australia, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and eventually the United States on Monday — won praise from some members of the audience, but most were not impressed.
"I'm fairly pessimistic. I've heard it all before," said Juan Allos, 23, an Iraqi exile now living in London.
Bart Woord, 19, said that if anything had changed his anti-war stance, it was not Blair but the audience members from Iraq. "It was particularly shocking to hear what they have been through. That made me understand a little more the need to act quickly," Woord said after the debate.
One of those Iraqis, Ammar Hassan, had praise for Blair's "courage and leadership" and a plea for him to remove Saddam from power.
"People are dying as we speak. Iraq is under fire, and I want you to stop the flame, and that is Saddam Hussein," said Hassan, 23, who came to Britain from Baghdad in 1988. "Can you guarantee me that this is going to happen and that the liberation of Iraq will be for the good of humankind and it is a civilized and moral issue?"
Blair assured Hassan that if military action went ahead, the regime would be removed and the conditions of Iraqi people would be improved.
But Hassan was more circumspect after the taping, saying he had been impressed with Blair only "to some extent" and that he wanted to make it clear he was against war. Hassan said he still had relatives in Iraq and was concerned for their safety in a conflict.
Woord seemed to sum up the mood of those in the studio and much of the British public when Blair told him he was always keen to have a dialogue with people to explain his views.
"It is not really working though, is it?" Woord replied.