Blair Concerned About British Nerve

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair will urge Britons this week to hold their nerve after a series of setbacks to the U.S.-led campaign against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Blair's spokeswoman said.

He will seek to reassure the public that Britain was right to back Washington's military strikes and that their combined action would overcome short-term difficulties as well as signs of muted but growing media skepticism.

The spokeswoman said Sunday officials had always expected "ups and downs" in the campaign, but believed it was important "to remember we're doing this for the right reasons."

"Whatever faults we may have, Britain is a moral nation with a strong sense of right and wrong," she said Blair would say in a speech on Tuesday. "That moral fiber will defeat fanaticism, terrorists and their supporters."

Blair, who has stood shoulder to shoulder behind U.S. President George W. Bush since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, had a 40-minute telephone conversation with Bush on Sunday.

The spokeswoman said they discussed the military campaign, diplomatic developments including the importance of the Middle East peace process, and the humanitarian situation.

Blair's comments come after Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned that the three-week-old military action might grind on "indefinitely." Their release more than two days before he was due to deliver them indicated a fresh urgency in Blair's battle to shore up public support.

The spokeswoman said Blair thought it was important to keep reminding people of last month's attacks on the United States, which killed thousands of people and which Washington and London accuse bin Laden of masterminding.

Referring to the rising tide of skepticism, she said: "There have been lots of stories in the last few days portraying every single setback as a major disaster."

Those setbacks include the capture and execution on Friday by the Taliban of opposition commander Abdul Haq, who could have been a key figure in rebuilding a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Military spokesmen in Washington and London have also been forced onto the defensive by misdirected U.S. bombing of civilians and Red Cross aid warehouses in Afghanistan.

Those mistakes, and concern over the apparent lack of progress toward meeting campaign goals, led to calls for a strategy review from British newspapers that had earlier been broadly supportive.

"This weekend, our confidence in that [Western] strategy lies shaken," the Observer newspaper said. "The last week has seen a collapse in certainty about the objectives being pursued by the military alliance against terrorism."

Under the headline 'Why Can't They Find Where He's Hiding?', the Sunday Times blamed "intelligence gaps" for keeping bin Laden at large.

Straw told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost program: "When you're dealing with military action, you cannot say for certain how long it will take."

He also accused British media critics of swiftly forgetting the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

"Three weeks into the war, it's almost as if the media have lost the connection of why we are involved in this. So we have constantly to remind them," he said.