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British Conservative Party Withstands Attack Regarding Illegal Arms Sales

By William D. Montalbano
Los Angeles Times
LONDON

Facing down a fierce opposition attack and defectors from his own party, British Prime Minister John Major put his government on the line Monday in an incendiary parliamentary vote over illegal arms sales to Iraq - and won by a hair.

Major's Conservatives won 320-319 in a vote that undercuts the impact of a report faulting government officials for their handling of the arms sales in the years before the Persian Gulf War.

The Conservatives limped to victory despite two defections, the opposition of nine members of Parliament from Northern Ireland who normally vote with the government and the combined weight of the Labor and Social Democrat parties.

Major's victory, which spared him from having to call a vote of confidence, can only reinforce his determination to remain in office for a full term and to call elections next year, rather than this year as his opponents demand.

In angry debates in the House of Commons on Monday, the two sides drew opposite conclusions from the same report. Major's opponents saw a callous decision to trade with Saddam Hussein in defiance of stated government policy, and a cover-up to keep the decision secret. The government's supporters saw flexible decision-making on the part of ministers working in the national interest.

"In any country which has seen real corruptions, they'd be astonished we're making such a meal of this," said Francis Maude, a former Conservative treasury minister.

"I don't think this is finished. We'll be going home convinced that the government is on the defensive," said Donald Dewar, a senior Labor Party leader.

At issue was an 1,800-page report by magistrate Sir Richard Scott, asked by Major to investigate the sale of British weapons to the Hussein regime, despite an announced government ban against arming Iraq.

Scott was sharply critical of two senior government officials, William Waldegrave, the No. 2 official at the Treasury, and Sir Nicholas Lyell, the attorney general, for misleading parliament, the public and the courts on sales that proceeded despite repeated assurance that government restrictions against them had not been lifted.