Guess who's coming to dinner?

Britain's Labor Party is in an uproar over the rumor that Tony Blair might invite Iraqi leader Iyad Allawi to its party conference.

By Michael White
Published August 18, 2004 3:58PM (EDT)

Downing Street dug its heels in last night against mounting criticism within the Labour ranks of suggestions that Ayad Allawi, the interim head of the Iraqi government, should be invited to address the party conference in Brighton next month. As leftwing MPs and activists expressed varying degrees of surprise, senior Labour officials were still in the dark 48 hours after the proposal emerged in weekend news reports. But it was later confirmed that an invitation to Mr Allawi, whose career has aroused deep controversy, is still on the cards.

"This is something that has been mentioned by people as something that has been thought about," a senior official at No 10 said.

"It is not possible to state whether a invitation has been sent or not, or the strength of the proposition."

That remark reinforced the suspicion that Tony Blair himself  currently a guest of another controversial ally, the Italian prime minster, Silvio Berlusconi  is the driving force behind the attempt to sell the new regime in Baghdad face-to-face at Labour's annual conference.

The prospect has prompted Labour CND to urge delegates to demonstrate in Brighton, and at least one member of the party's ruling national executive committee, Mark Seddon, to predict there will be a walkout if Mr Allawi speaks.

Some ministers outside the Iraqi policy loop are cautiously prepared to defend the idea, frustrated that the views of Iraqi reformers  trade unionists and communists among them  rarely get a hearing among what one called "Blair-hating" media commentators.

"It's been driving a lot of us crazy these last few months that whenever we hear Iraqis speaking effectively for what's happening it never gets picked up in the British press," one minister said last night.

Another said: "We need someone to offer a vision for the future of Iraq rather than the daily horrors of the conflict and security issues."

But the leftwing MP and veteran critic of Saddam Hussein's regime, Jeremy Corbyn, wrote to Mr Blair urging him not to invite a leader who "has not been elected by anyone, but merely appointed from a group of people selected by Britain and the US".

In fact Mr Allawi emerged as a compromise candidate last May, as a secular former exile to Britain who has been commended for being "equally mistrusted by everyone".

Since 1997 Labour has had a series of high-profile guest speakers, including Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton, as well as Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim leader.

Since taking office on July 1 Mr Allawi has played the hard man on security issues  and even threatened martial law. More seriously, he has been accused of personally executing six insurgents held at the Amariya detention centre outside Baghdad this summer  a charge which is denied but which has been widely disseminated.

Michael White

MORE FROM Michael White

Related Topics ------------------------------------------