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Ruling British Labor Party Leader Quits to Protest War Involvement

By Glenn Frankel

Robin Cook, the ruling Labor Party’s parliamentary leader and a former foreign secretary, quit his Cabinet post Monday to protest Britain’s involvement in imminent military action against Iraq without U.N. authorization.

“I cannot support a war without international agreement or domestic support,” Cook told a crowded House of Commons Monday night in explaining his resignation, the first from the Cabinet of Prime Minister Tony Blair due to differences over war policy. Cook’s departure highlighted the political vulnerability of Blair, who has been the United States’ staunchest ally in the confrontation with Iraq despite widespread opposition in the British public and criticism from abroad.

A second Cabinet member, International Development Secretary Clare Short, was weighing whether to resign as well, and said she would announce her decision Tuesday morning, before the House of Commons holds a special day-long debate on the prospective war.

At that session, rebel lawmakers from Blair’s party will seek to pass a motion condemning military action in a last-ditch effort to keep Blair from ordering British forces to join a U.S.-led attack. Most observers expect Blair to muster a sizable majority, due to near-total support on this issue from the opposition Conservative Party.

In an effort to bolster support, Blair has been the prime mover behind the campaign in recent days to have the U.N. Security Council pass a resolution increasing pressure on Iraq. He and his government conceded defeat Monday, placing the blame both on Iraq for defying the U.N. mandate to disarm and on France for resisting military action.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott emerged from an emergency Cabinet meeting Monday afternoon to condemn France for declaring it would veto any Security Council resolution leading to war. “We deeply regret that French intransigence and the Iraqi noncompliance have left us with no option but to bring discussions to an end,” he said in a statement.

The language was unusual for Blair’s government, which until now has generally avoided anti-French rhetoric. But in recent days, officials have noted popular suspicion about French motives and taken their diplomatic gloves off.

The government has also sought to win support for Blair’s Iraq policy by emphasizing that he had helped persuade President Bush to renew efforts for a diplomatic breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by outlining plans for international economic development aid to a post-Hussein Iraq.

Officials also took the unusual step Monday of releasing a written opinion from Attorney General Peter Goldsmith that war against Iraq was legally justifiable even without a new U.N. resolution.

Cook got a rare standing ovation in the House of Commons Monday night after outlining the reasons for his resignation. He said none of the international institutions that Britain belonged to had endorsed military action. He said he believed Iraq posed no serious threat to British or U.S. security. And he said the Bush administration seemed more interested in replacing the government than in disarming the country.

“What has come to trouble me most over past weeks is the suspicion that if the hanging chads in Florida had gone the other way and Al Gore had been elected, we would not now be about to commit British troops,” Cook told the lawmakers.