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The Alliance is holding a war council tomorrow. The party is at war with itself over the "war against terror" in Afghanistan.

In a special meeting the council will discuss a major split over the party's support for the United States - a split that has added further strains to a party already under pressure to make its mark in Government and which comes just two weeks before the annual conference.

This battle makes the old NewLabour spats with the Greens and the Democrats seem like a pleasant episode of the Brady Bunch - the internecine problems pitch old comrades against old comrades, not least party president Matt McCarten against leader Jim Anderton.

The question over the war epitomises the fundamental question of how the party should behave in Government.

How far should the Alliance compromise its ideals for the sake of unity in coalition with Labour?

How much can it differentiate itself from Labour without compromising stable government?

Some activists emotionally depict it as a choice between appeasement and non-appeasement.

The Alliance has traditionally backed well away from United States-led military actions. But in backing the United States this time, Mr Anderton responded to events that defy traditional precepts.

The internal uprising over the war is likely to be an irritable distraction from the serious business of government - setting up banks and promoting jobs.

The divide is summed up no better than by Mr McCarten himself in an internal e-mail, boasting in his defeat as an Auckland mayoral candidate that he lifted Alliance support from 2 per cent to his final 15 per cent.

"In our Auckland campaign, we unashamedly labelled ourselves as left-wing and this is possibly part of the reason the campaign was so successful.

"The Alliance is constantly being told to moderate its politics to be more successful. I think the Auckland campaign has disproved this approach."

The message is that "appeasement" has got the party nowhere but a slow slide in the polls, and it is better to own up to the party's left-wing traditions.

One of the factors behind the McCarten-Anderton cooling was that the mayoral bid was launched without Mr Anderton's knowledge, let alone his consent.

Mr McCarten is also among those unhappy with the Alliance's war position. Laila Harre is said to be unhappy as well, but is bound by caucus. Mr McCarten and activists are backing her to stand as deputy leader at the conference and, if necessary, challenge Sandra Lee.

Mr Anderton and the caucus voted with Labour in Parliament to "totally support" the United States and New Zealand's offer of SAS troops.

The motion was: "That this House declares its support for the offer of Special Air Services troops and other assistance as part of the response of the United States and the international coalition to the terrorist attacks that were carried out on September 11, 2001, in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania and totally supports the approach taken by the United States of America, and further declares its support for United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1368 and 1373."

That was passed on October 3, before the bombs started falling on Afghanistan and well before one or two went the way of an old folks' home.

Only the Greens voted against the motion, fuelling green-envy among Alliance activists who claimed that not only was that party "stealing the Alliance's clothes" on the issues of GM and free trade, but also on the war.

The Alliance was responsible for getting the reference to two United Nations resolutions written into the statement of support - resolutions, it is debated, that sanction the US action.

Tomorrow the MPs will face a series of resolutions during the special telephone conference. Mr Anderton has already ordered that the resolutions not be put in writing, lest they end up in the Herald.

The motions, from Central District, do not outright condemn the MPs for supporting the war. Instead, they restate the ideal Alliance position, referring to the need for United Nations authority and for parties in Government to use their positions to negotiate peaceful solutions.

It may be a close vote, but it is a de facto move of censure and will certainly be painted that way by the Opposition.

Mr Anderton has already warned the council that such motions could force MPs to rethink their position in Government, but apparently that has been threatened so often it has lost its impact. And "make my day" would probably be the refrain from a hard core anyway.

Disarmament Minister Matt Robson has sought to lower the temperature in the party, saying shortly after the parliamentary vote that "the Alliance does not believe that a massive military attack on a disintegrating nation will deliver the result the world is seeking".

Whatever his intentions, detractors say he was simply trying to have a bob each way, supporting it one day but not the next.

And it has not prevented Mr Robson's trusted friend and adviser Mike Treen from resigning from his staff. Treen, who is working off his notice, is a former comrade from the pair's days in the Socialist Action League.

Helen Clark's celebrated free-trade achievements at Apec have exacerbated matters within the Alliance. Colin Powell and George W. Bush didn't exactly say, "You can have a free-trade deal for the price of an SAS squad on standby", but the synergies of anti-terrorism and free trade flourished.

In that respect the Alliance's support for the United States has helped ease the way for a free-trade deal that Alliance activists back as little as they back the war in Afghanistan.

Mr Anderton detected the potential for revolt early on and wrote to all members two weeks ago acknowledging their concerns about the war position, defending his actions and even saying the response might change.

"As part of the Government we will do our best to stick within the framework of the United Nations. If events require, we will alter our responses - sensibly, responsibly."

Two nights ago, Mr Anderton called a meeting of northern Alliance members in Auckland. ("Does that make him the Taleban?" one wit wondered out loud.) But it is no laughing matter.

The Peace Movement Aotearoa depicted the meeting on its website as Mr Anderton speaking on his "pro-war" position. Mr Anderton threatened to sue for making grossly defamatory statements, and an apology was offered.

Mr Anderton will not want the war to dominate the party conference in two weeks - plenty of other issues can do that.

And unless the warring factions want a distracting escalation of hostilities in election year, they will have to make their own peace soon.