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Britain may make glorifying terror a crime

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LONDON — After a series of bruising parliamentary duels, Prime Minister Tony Blair secured victory in the House of Commons Wednesday in a vote to expand counterterrorism laws by making "glorification" of terrorism a criminal offense.

Legislators voted by 315 to 277 in a ballot that pitted Blair's Labor Party against the Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition, supported by some 17 Labor party dissidents.

Blair's critics said the vote — one of three critical parliamentary tests in as many days — represented as much a display of political maneuvering as a strengthening of British laws, which already include provisions like those used last week to prosecute Abu Hamza al-Masri, a firebrand Muslim cleric. Masri was sentenced to seven years in jail for soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred.

Opponents had said the term glorification was legally vague and unnecessary. "The existing law is quite adequate to the problem," said Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats.

But, hours before the vote, Blair insisted in Parliament: "If we take out the word glorification we are sending a massive counterproductive signal."

Political experts said the prime minister seemed to be positioning himself to argue that the opposition was soft on terrorism.

Blair told William Hague, a Conservative opposition leader, "I hope he understands that what he and his colleagues will be voting for today will significantly dilute and weaken the measures attacking glorification that are absolutely vital if we are to defend this country successfully against the likes of Abu Hamza."

Evoking the July 7 attacks on London's mass transit, Charles Clarke, the home secretary, said: "It is the glorification of terror which, in the view of the government, is an essential method for those individuals and organizations who pursue terrorist ambitions and seek to get individuals, like the 7/7 bombers, to commit to their suicidal and destructive ends."

But Hague accused the government of "ineffective authoritarianism" and called the draft legislation "a press release law designed to catch the headlines."

Both the government and opposition agree that a new counterterrorism law should define measures to prevent "indirectly encouraging acts of terrorism." The dispute is whether those measures should include glorifying terrorism, a notion that lawyers and others say is imprecise.

"The term is very woolly, very vague," said the Conservative spokesman on law and order, David Davis. But Blair said glorification was "a word, I think, that members of the public readily know and understand and juries would understand."

Under British parliamentary procedures, the draft law must now go back to the upper House of Lords, which removed the term "glorification" when it first considered the legislation. The upper house could still try to excise the term, provoking a standoff with the House of Commons.

The debate has been sharpened both by the trial of Masri and by protests two weeks ago against cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper.

Amid the worldwide welter of Islamic outrage, a group of Muslim demonstrators converged on the Danish Embassy in London bearing placards, one of them calling for opponents of Islam to be beheaded. Another praised the July 7 killers as "the fantastic four."

But the only person arrested was a 22-year-old man, identified as Omar Khayam, a paroled drug offender who had dressed for the demonstration as a suicide bomber.

Blair announced that he would tighten existing terrorism laws after the July bombings in which four attackers killed 52 people on the London transport system. But there have been several setbacks to the prime minister's plans.

A proposal to close mosques used by radical imams has been dropped, and a plan to extend the permitted period of detention without charge or trial from 14 to 90 days has been abandoned in favor of a compromise 28 days.

The debate has shown the power of Labor dissidents to undermine Blair after his majority was reduced to 64 seats in last May's elections.

Bob Marshall-Andrews, one of the rebels, said many people believed the draft law "has two uses for the government: to persuade the public it is doing something and as an alibi and an excuse for not having done something in the past."

Wednesday's vote followed a ballot on Monday in which the government narrowly won approval for the introduction of mandatory identity cards, and another on Tuesday when Parliament resolved overwhelmingly to ban smoking in all public places in England.

The series of votes had been depicted as a critical test for Blair, who has lost three parliamentary votes since last November, his first defeats since taking office in 1997 and a reflection of the diluted authority that has come with his reduced majority.