New York Times
February 24, 2007
By Alan Cowell
LONDON, Feb. 23 — Britain and the United States said Friday that they were discussing the stationing of an American antiballistic missile defense system on British soil.
The United States previously offered to locate the missile system in the Czech Republic and Poland, drawing furious objections from Russia, though Washington argues that the system is not built to defend against Russia but against Iran, principally, and other potential threats.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokeswoman said Friday that Britain had been secretly lobbying for inclusion in the system for some time. “It is our intention that whilst the United States are in the decision-making process, the U.K. should be considered as part of that,” the spokeswoman said.
“The prime minister thinks it is a good idea that we are part of the consideration by the United States” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, which the British civil service requires. “We believe it is an important step toward providing missile defense coverage for Europe, of which we are part.”
The possible step, first mentioned in The Economist magazine, seems sure to prove contentious in Britain, and to cloud Mr. Blair’s final months in office, along with two other events that surfaced Friday.
In one, relatives of British soldiers slain in Iraq began a peace vigil in blue nylon tents near Mr. Blair’s office, and in the other, Mr. Blair pondered a new military deployment in Afghanistan.
Just two days after Mr. Blair announced a withdrawal of 1,600 of the 7,100 British soldiers in southern Iraq, Defense Secretary Des Browne said “some additional forces” — possibly about 1,000 soldiers — would be sent to join the 5,600 Britons who are part of NATO forces confronting an expected spring offensive by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Word of the missile defense negotiations followed remarks in Washington on Thursday by Gen. Henry Obering III, who discussed the deployment of missile defenses in Britain, saying, “We are always looking for new ways to partner with the United Kingdom, whether that be co-development or a hosting, or any of the activities of that nature.” He also said that radar systems were already in final testing in Britain.
At first the American Embassy in London made remarks that the British news media seized on as a rebuff of Mr. Blair’s interest. David Johnson, the deputy chief of mission at the United States Embassy in London, told a BBC radio interviewer: “I would see as we go forward. There may be opportunities for us to talk to other countries about other needs, but right now we’re concentrating on the Czech Republic and on Poland as the primary sites where we would be looking for this.”
In a subsequent statement, Mr. Johnson said any suggestion that his remarks “were a rebuff to the British government is nonsense. We have been and will be in discussions with the British government as we develop our missile defense system and be open to opportunities for joint work as we go forward.”
The negotiations are most likely to raise political hackles at a time when many in Mr. Blair’s Labor Party and in the opposition Conservatives are pressing for Britain to distance itself from the United States after their close and sometimes unpopular alliance in Iraq.
The Conservatives said the government had given no information about its discussions with the United States. “If there is a request to base part of the U.S. National Missile Defense system in the U.K., we would need to see the exact nature of that request before taking a decision,” said Liam Fox, the Conservative spokesman on defense. The government, he said, needs “to be more honest with the opposition” to secure bipartisan support for the proposed missile deployment.
Mr. Fox also took issue with the plan to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, saying other European countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, should commit troops in the hazardous Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan, where many British soldiers are based.
“It is clear that the government has failed to get our NATO allies to carry their share of the burden in Afghanistan,” he said, complaining that, with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, “it is clear now that our army is so overstretched we can’t carry two conflicts.”
Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan, British troops are deployed in the Balkans and in Northern Ireland.
The political hazards of Mr. Blair’s military ventures were underlined by the protest on Whitehall, the broad boulevard running by the gated and closely guarded entrance to Downing Street, where Mr. Blair has his office and residence.
Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in Basra, Iraq, in 2004, led a small group of protesters who pitched camp and submitted a letter addressed to Mr. Blair calling for a meeting with him.
“This is our sixth such visit, and each time you have not seen fit to give us a few minutes of your time,” the letter said. “We have a number of questions that we need answered about the deaths of our sons in Iraq, and we insist that you meet us.”
“Please believe us, Mr. Blair, that neither we nor these questions will go away,” the letter said. Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.