REUTERS - British Prime Minister David Cameron is likely to ask parliament to vote on Wednesday to approve British airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria after months of wrangling over whether enough opposition Labour lawmakers would back military action.
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However, Cameron faced a possible stiffening of opposition in Labour ranks after media reports he urged his Conservative Party lawmakers at a private meeting late on Tuesday not to vote with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn "and a bunch of terrorist sympathizers."
"This is a contemptible and desperate slur which demeans his office," Corbyn's spokesman said, calling for an apology from Cameron. A spokeswoman for Cameron's Downing Street office did not offer an official comment.
In a further sign of rising passions over the affair, Labour deputies backing airstrikes have become targets of biting social media attacks by hard-left activists.
Cameron has said he believes British warplanes, which have been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq for more than a year, should also be tackling the group in Syria rather than "sub-contract" national security to other countries.
The Nov. 13 Islamic State attacks that killed 130 people in Paris gave momentum to Cameron's push for airstrikes, but critics have questioned whether the action would significantly add to international efforts to defeat the group.
Keen to avoid a repeat of a humiliating 2013 parliamentary defeat over plans to bomb the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Cameron had made it clear he would not bring a vote to parliament if he did not think he could win it.
That appeared more likely after Corbyn, a veteran anti-war campaigner who says strikes would be ineffective and kill civilians, said on Monday he would allow his lawmakers to vote according to their conscience rather than directing them to follow his lead.
'Rush to war'
Corbyn accused Cameron of "an ill-though-out rush to war".
"The prime minister has been unable to explain why extending airstrikes to Syria - which is already being bombed by the US, France, Russia and other powers - will make a significant military impact," Corbyn wrote in the Guardian newspaper,
"Crucially, he has failed to convince almost anyone that, even if British participation in the current air campaign were to tip the balance, there are credible ground forces able to take back ISIL-held territory," he said, using one of the militant group's other acronyms.
Corbyn has repeatedly cited Britain's deeply unpopular role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as cause for caution. Tony Blair, who led Britain at the time, acknowledged in October the Iraq war had played a part in the rise of Islamic State.
A YouGov opinion poll showed voter support for military action in Syria had fallen to the lowest level since September 2014, with 48 percent of respondents supporting strikes and 31 percent opposing.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond appeared on news bulletins to reiterate the case for bombing Islamic State in Syria.
"We can't hide from these people, we can't pull the quilt over our heads. They are out to get us," he told the BBC, citing a June attack on a Tunisian beach that killed 30 Britons, and seven foiled plots to attack targets in Britain this past year.
"The only way we can protect ourselves is fighting back," he said, adding that military action was just one plank of a multi-faceted strategy that also included diplomatic talks in Vienna aimed at resolving the Syrian civil war.
Asked whether Cameron's reported comment on "terrorist sympathizers" - an abrupt departure from the restrained language he has used to court public support and undecided deputies - could jeopardize victory in a parliamentary vote, Hammond sought to defuse tensions.
"The prime minister knows, as I know, that many of those who are opposed to us in this debate hold deep positions of conscience against the use of military in any circumstances. We disagree with them ... but we have to respect them," he said.
"There are others who are not opposed to military action in principle but are simply questioning the efficacy of military action in this case. Those are the people we're trying to convince today."
Some Labour lawmakers who back airstrikes in Syria have come under vitriolic attack on social media from hard-left activists, including accusations that their support for the action amounted to killing women and babies.
John Mann, a Labour legislator who opposes the airstrikes, denounced such activism as "repeated abuse against anyone they disagree with" and said it had no place in the debate.
"They're not persuading anybody, they're hardening attitudes, so ironically they're helping David Cameron," he told the BBC.
Media reports prior to Cameron's reported remarks emerging said about 50 Labour lawmakers would back action when the vote takes place late on Wednesday, after 10-1/2 hours of debate in parliament.
British airstrikes launched from an air base in Cyprus could begin swiftly if lawmakers support Cameron.