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LONDON (AP) -- Prime Minister Tony Blair pleaded Tuesday for his party's backing for joining the United States in military action against Iraq, saying the crisis will determine the shape of international politics for a generation.
"Back away from this confrontation now and future conflicts will be infinitely worse and more devastating in their effects," Blair said, opening a critical debate in the House of Commons.
The government has asked the House of Commons to support its decision to join the United States in a war against Iraq and to use "all means necessary" to strip Saddam Hussein of any weapons of mass destruction.
Rebels in Blair's governing Labor Party were backing an amendment declaring that the case for war "has not yet been established." In a similar parliamentary showdown last month, a third of Labor lawmakers voted against the government.
Senior Cabinet minister Robin Cook quit the government Monday saying he could not support a war without international agreement or domestic support. Two junior ministers also resigned in protest.
Blair said that far more is at stake than disarming the Iraqi leader. He said the fundamental framework of international relations was being re-examined.
"It will determine the way Britain and the world confront the central security threat of the 21st century; the development of the United Nations; the relationship between Europe and the United States; the relations within the European Union and the way that the United States engages with the rest of the world.
"So it could hardly be more important. It will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation," Blair said.
Blair does not need parliamentary approval to take Britain into war. And he was confident of winning the support of a majority of Parliament. He was counting on the votes of the opposition Conservatives to carry the government's motion by a comfortable margin.
But another rebellion within his ranks would be a major embarrassment for Blair at a time when many Britons oppose a war without U.N. backing.
Blair received a boost when Clare Short, who threatened last week to resign and accused Blair of pursuing a "deeply reckless" policy, announced that she would vote for the government. She also pledged to remain as secretary for international development, in charge of Britain's aid agency.
President Bush has given Saddam until Wednesday to leave his country or face military action after abandoning diplomatic efforts at the United Nations.
Blair said U.N. action on Iraq was paralyzed by division between the United States and its allies on one hand, and France, Germany, Russia and their supporters.
"I know why it arises," Blair said. "There is resentment of U.S. predominance. There is fear of U.S. unilateralism."
"And there is perhaps a lack of full understanding of U.S. preoccupations after the 11th of September," he added.
A poll published Tuesday in The Guardian newspaper suggested that the public was increasingly rallying around Blair. Support for military action to disarm Saddam has risen by 9 percentage points since February to 38 percent, while opposition fell 8 points to 44 percent, said the survey by ICM.
The Guardian's ICM poll was based on telephone interviews with 1,002 adults last weekend and had a margin of error of three percentage points.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)