Britain's foreign secretary warns of more 'dark moments' in Iraq

Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, warned Wednesday of more "dark moments" ahead in Iraq and spoke of the difficulties of nation-building, after a mob stoned and petrol-bombed British troops earlier this month.

Straw cautioned that it would take time to rebuild a country that suffered a dictatorial, violent past.

"None of us should underestimate the challenges that still lie ahead in Iraq," Straw said, addressing the governing Labour Party's annual conference in the southern English resort of Brighton. "Nation-building from a violent past has never been easy."

An elderly delegate heckled Straw, shouting "That's a lie" as the foreign secretary justified the continued presence of British troops in Iraq. The man was removed from the conference hall by stewards, prompting complaints from other delegates.

The party later apologized to the delegate, 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang, saying his treatment had been "inappropriate."

But unlike previous years, where anger over the U.S.-led invasion dominated the sidelines of the conference, criticism of the war was muted and largely absent. During a debate on Britain's foreign policy, Iraq was mentioned by only one speaker, trade unionist Barry Camfield.

"Our troops should be pulled out now and quickly," he told the conference hall, drawing some cheers and applause. "You cannot force democracy on a people by means of war."

Prime Minister Tony Blair has resisted calls to withdraw Britain's 8,500 troops from Iraq, and insists he is committed to help the fledgling government there restore order and build democratic institutions.

Drawing parallels with postwar Germany, Straw said it had taken four years before national elections could be held there in the wake of World War II.

"In Iraq it was less than two _ 60 percent turnout, braving the terrorists," he said. "Bringing any nation whose people have been ruled by violent dictatorships to one where the people rule themselves can take time."

Blair's enthusiastic support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq caused his popularity to slump, and although Labour won a third consecutive election earlier this year, its huge lead in Parliament was slashed _ prompting questions about his leadership and authority.

Disquiet about Britain's involvement in Iraq has grown since Sept. 19, when rioters in the southern city of Basra attacked British troops with petrol bombs as the soldiers attempted to rescue two comrades who had been detained by Iraqi police.

Straw acknowledged the incident was serious. "Of course, as (British Defense Secretary) John Reid has commented, we can expect more dark moments," Straw told delegates.

Much of the public's anger over the war has dissipated in Britain. Rallies, which in the buildup to the U.S.-led invasion attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, now only pull a few thousand.

Still, the issue is sensitive for the government, and Labour Party officials blocked an emergency resolution at the conference calling for a phased withdrawal of British troops. If the vote had gone against the government, it would not have forced a change in policy, but would have been embarrassing.

Labour lawmaker Linda Riordan, whose constituency tabled the motion, was disappointed.

"The silence on Iraq at this conference is deafening, absolutely deafening," she said, AP reported.

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