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As Blair's influence grows, so does criticism at home

The British leader has pledged 5,000 UN peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan.

As Taliban forces fled one Afghan city after another this week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair might have been forgiven for pausing a moment to relish his role as President Bush's most loyal and outspoken ally in this fruitful campaign.

But with characteristic verve, he was already looking ahead to the next steps, readying thousands of British troops to protect a humanitarian relief operation in Afghanistan, and appealing on BBC Radio's Pashtun-language service for help in capturing Osama bin Laden.

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"Tony Blair is not a man to sit on the sidelines," says one government source who knows him well. "He always says that if you don't put your head over the parapet, you don't know what's going on."

But Mr. Blair's enthusiasm in playing such a prominent role on the world stage since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack is not universally admired at home.

"He is being more American than the Americans, more papal than the pope," complains veteran critic Tam Dalyell, a member of Mr. Blair's Labor party. "And he is using the situation for his own purposes, to become a world statesman and to make his mark on history."

Since Sept. 11, Blair has met with leaders in Europe, Russia, Central Asia, and throughout the Middle East.

In the course of rallying an international coalition behind Washington's "war on terrorism," he has developed a high level of trust with George Bush, say officials here, by standing foursquare behind America.

That, say some observers, has allowed Blair to leverage Britain's international influence well beyond its real strength as a medium-sized European power.

"He has sought a personal international stature that would not normally be expected in a British leader at the present time," says Malcolm Rifkind, a member of the opposition Conservative party and former defense minister. "Through his personal relations with the US president, he has made the government he represents an important interlocutor."

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Blair's activism has obscured the relatively small role that British forces have actually played in the Afghanistan campaign. British submarines fired six missiles at Taliban targets on the first two nights of the assault, but have since been silent. British special forces are on the ground, while Royal Air Force reconnaisance and refueling planes have aided their American allies.

Blair's vocal support for Washington has provoked scorn from critics who say he is merely a cheerleader for the world's only superpower.

"We want to believe he is influencing the Americans, but I believe he is only their satrap," says Peter Kilfoyle, a former member of Blair's government.

The prime minister's supporters deny such accusations. "Tony Blair is not George Bush's envoy. He is the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and he will always do what is in the United Kingdom's interests," says the government source. "Insofar as they coincide with those of the United States - and they do in the campaign against terrorism - then we will say the same things."

Privately, British officials suggest that Blair has used his standing to restrain Washington's belligerent instincts in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, to give time to organize international support for military action. Some predict he will use his influence to dissuade Bush from attacking Iraq in the way he has attacked the Taliban.

Outsiders question the extent of that influence, however. "Where the United States has not made up its mind, perhaps on Iraq, he can have influence," says Sir Rifkind. "But mostly he won't influence the course of action one way or the other, though the Americans will listen politely."

Little has blunted Blair's manifest sense of moral certainty about his policy in Afghanistan.

"When he knows what the right thing to do is, there will be no deflecting him," says the government official. "He is not one to pussyfoot around if people are getting killed."

Blair's expressions of moral certainty, however, are sometimes perceived another way.

"What some would describe as a sense of purpose comes across as vanity," says one Labour member of Parliament. "He has a vainglorious approach to life."

The British leader's solidarity with the US has heightened some European countries' doubts about London's attitude toward Europe. "Tony thinks that Britain can be seen as a bridge between the European Union and the United States," says Mr. Kilfoyle. "But a lot of Europeans see us as a Trojan horse for US interests."

While Blair and his staff are sensitive to such criticisms, says the government source, "it doesn't deflect them from their course. Tony Blair is impatient with theories of how you do things. He concentrates on how you get results."