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British opponent of iraq war falls dead

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Robin Cook, former British foreign secretary who opposed Iraq war, dies at 59
06:11 PM EDT Aug 08

LONDON (AP) - Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, a one-time ally of Prime Minister Tony Blair who resigned in protest of the Iraq war, died Saturday while hiking in the Scottish Highlands, police said.

Political friends and foes alike paid tribute to a politician many regarded as the greatest parliamentary performer of his generation.

"Robin was an outstanding, extraordinary talent - brilliant, incisive in debate, of incredible skill and persuasive power," Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a statement released by his 10 Downing Street office.

Blair said Cook's death "will be received with immense sadness, not just in Britain but in many parts of the world."

Northern Constabulary said Cook, 59, collapsed on Ben Stack mountain in northwest Scotland while walking with his wife. He was taken by Coast Guard helicopter to a hospital in Inverness, where he was pronounced dead.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said Cook was "the greatest parliamentarian of his generation."

"He also made an enormous contribution to British politics in opposition and in government," Prescott said.

Michael Howard, leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, said Cook's political contribution had been "immense."

"He was a politician of principle who fought hard for the things he believed in," Howard said.

Jack Straw, Cook's successor as foreign secretary, said he was "devastated."

"Robin and I had been good friends for nearly 30 years and that friendship survived our policy disagreements over Iraq," Straw said. "He was the greatest parliamentarian of his generation and a very fine foreign secretary. I deeply mourn his loss."

Supporters believed Cook should have been leader of the Labour Party, and prime minister. But opponents saw him as arrogant and distant, and he ended his political career on the back benches.

Cook served as foreign minister from 1997 to 2001 before being demoted to leader of the House of Commons. His resignation speech, days before war began in March 2003, received a rare standing ovation from legislators.

An unusually emotional Cook told legislators: "I cannot support a war without international agreement or domestic support."

"Only a year ago, we and the United States were part of a coalition against terrorism that was wider and more diverse than I would ever have imagined possible," Cook said. "History will be astonished at the diplomatic miscalculations that led so quickly to the disintegration of that powerful coalition."

Renowned as an intelligent legislator and skilled debater, Cook remained a high-profile figure despite his withdrawal from government and became an increasingly vocal opponent of Blair's policies.

A legislator since 1974, Cook - a short and bearded redhead - declined to stand in opposition to Blair when he was elected Labour leader in 1994, declaring: "I am not good-looking enough."

Instead, Cook accepted the post of foreign secretary following the landslide election victory that made Blair prime minister in 1997.

But his promise of an "ethical dimension" to British foreign policy often came back to haunt him, particularly after he sanctioned the sale of 16 Hawk jet fighters to Indonesia in 1999, despite the country's widely criticized human rights record in East Timor.

Another diplomatic miscalculation came during a trip to India and Pakistan when he suggested that Britain could mediate any negotiations over the disputed territory of Kashmir. The remark irritated both countries.

Cook was praised by many for his tough-minded handling of the 1999 Kosovo crisis, but that and other successes were partly overshadowed by the scandal of ending his 28-year marriage to his wife Margaret at an airport as they were about to leave on vacation.

Warned by Downing Street that a tabloid newspaper was about to disclose his long-standing affair with his secretary Gaynor Regan, Cook immediately told Margaret that he was leaving her. Margaret wrote a book accusing her former husband of being a drunk and a depressive.

She said his intelligence and ability were unmatched, but that he had "absolutely no natural courtesy or sympathy."

Cook, who later married Regan, had shifted to the right of the party under Blair's leadership but gravitated back to the left following his demotion, earning a reputation as a leading cabinet "dove" opposed to war on Iraq without a United Nations mandate.

An ally of Treasury chief Gordon Brown, Cook had been tipped to return to cabinet should Brown succeed Blair as Labour leader, as many predict.

On Saturday, Brown praised Cook's "incisive mind, forensic skills and formidable and wide-ranging debating prowess."

"A strong European, a committed internationalist, and a distinguished foreign secretary with friends in every country, he will be mourned greatly not only by his family, friends, colleagues and constituents, but in every continent of the world," Brown said.

Cook is survived by his wife and two sons from his first marriage.

The Canadian Press, 2005

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