48 hours to go: Iraq, the issue that won't go away

Posted in Europe | 03-May-05 | Author: Colin Brown and James Burleigh| Source: The Independent

British soldiers patrol the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

Tony Blair's hopes of keeping Iraq off the election agenda were dashed yesterday by the killing of the 50th British soldier in hostile action since the conflict began two years ago, renewed violence on the streets and accusations from the brother of the murdered British hostage Ken Bigley.

Writing in The Independent Paul Bigley claims Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, privately urged him to issue a public apology to Mr Blair to avoid criticism of the Government damaging the Prime Minister's bid for a third election victory.

Mr Straw, who was accompanied by a private secretary when the alleged conversation took place, denied last night that he had raised the election issue with Mr Bigley. But Mr Bigley insisted that he had a "vivid recollection" of the conversation, which he says took place after a memorial service for his brother in Liverpool last October.

Mr Bigley said he was backing Reg Keys, whose son died in Iraq, in his stand against Mr Blair in his Sedgefield constituency.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed yesterday that Anthony John Wakefield, 24, of the Coldstream Guards, died after being hit by shrapnel while on patrol near the southern town of Amarah at about midnight Iraqi time (9pm BST) on Sunday. Guardsman Wakefield, from Newcastle upon Tyne, who was married and had three children, is the first British soldier to die in hostile action in Iraq this year. His death takes to 50 the number of UK service personnel killed by hostile action since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the 87th fatality of the overall British military operation.

Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Williams, commanding officer of 1st Battalion the Staffordshire Regiment, which is serving alongside the Coldstream Guards, said Guardsman Wakefield was acting as the "top cover sentry in the second of a two-vehicle patrol" at the time of the blast. Colonel Williams said: "What appears to have been an improvised explosive device detonated disabling the vehicle and injuring another soldier."

Mr Blair was at a campaign press conference when he was passed a note by his special adviser, Hillary Coffman, informing him of the soldier's death.

Anthony Wakefield's wife, Ann Toward, last night added to the pressure by blaming the Prime Minister for his death.

Writing in today's edition of The Independent, Mr Blair takes the extraordinary step of urging voters not to use the election as a referendum on himself. "This election is not, whatever Charles Kennedy says, just about Iraq or even about me as PM, although I accept both are important factors. It is about which party forms the Government and the future direction of the country.

"It is a choice between competing parties and their different plans for the economy, health, education and the other important areas which will directly impact on you and your family."

The Prime Minister was forced on to the defensive last night after hostile questioning by the audience on ITV1's Ask Tony Blair programme. He said: "I am not going to stand here and beg for my own character. People can make up their own minds whether they trust me or not."

Meanwhile, there was increasing violence across Iraq. In Baghdad, bombs killed at least eight Iraqis. In the northern city of Mosul, two suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing a child and wounding 15 people.

Jack Straw's office denied the allegation of a request for an apology from Mr Bigley. His office said: "While at the service, Mr Bigley did apologise to Mr Straw for making statements while his brother was still alive.

"The Foreign Secretary thanked him and added that if at any stage Mr Bigley felt able to reflect these statements in public in order to put the record straight he would welcome it. The Foreign Secretary made no mention of the Prime Minister or the election."

In other developments, Rose Gentle, whose son was killed in Iraq, said she would fight "tooth and nail" to take Mr Blair to court over the death of her son and what she described as "war crimes". In the US, a judge retired to consider a guilty plea by Lynndie England, who was implicated in prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. In Rome, the row over the death of the agent Nicola Calipari deepened when Italy blamed the "stress and inexperience" of US troops.