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Will the Falkland Islands come between the UK and US?

US comments on Falkland Islands dispute leads Britain to question the "special relationship."

A former Argentine soldier holds a sign that reads "Britons go home" during a demonstration in front of the Congress building in Buenos Aires to protest against to oil exploration off the disputed Falklands Islands, on Feb. 24, 2010. (Enrique Marcarian/Reuters)

LONDON, United Kingdom — The “special relationship” between Britain and the United States has come under scrutiny here recently because of differences of opinion between the allies about a windswept archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean claimed by both Britain and Argentina.

Known to the United Kingdom as the Falkland Islands and to Argentina as Las Malvinas, the tiny British dependency shot onto front pages in Buenos Aires and London when a British oil rig arrived last month and anchored 60 miles north of the islands to begin exploration drilling in waters included in the islands’ economic zone.

The affair has ignited intense emotions in Argentina, 300 miles away. More than 600 Argentine soldiers and seamen died in the two-month war fought with Britain in 1982, when the U.K. sent a war fleet and marine brigade 8,000 miles down the length of the Atlantic to attack and expel the Argentine force that had seized the islands.

The pride of the Argentine navy, the cruiser General Belgrano, was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine Conqueror, with 323 lives lost.

In Britain, too, the conflict has the power to rake up strong feelings. More than 250 Britons died in the fighting to retake the islands, and the Royal Navy lost a destroyer and a frigate to missile and bomb attacks by the Argentine air force.

Then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to allow the islands to be taken, and the patriotic fervor she stirred up in support of the campaign, restored her own teetering fortunes and returned her government to power on a tide of nationalism in elections the next year.

Like Thatcher in 1982, the Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is thought by some to be whipping up her countrymen’s patriotism as a distraction from domestic problems — in Argentina’s case, the economy and corruption scandals.

So where does the U.S. come in? British leaders paid a high political and military price to support the U.S. in the Iraq war, in defiance of many of their citizens. Despite their government's protestations, Britons view the Iraq campaign as a war fought largely in support of the "special relationship," and are keenly sensitive about how Washington repays that support. Apparently it is not to be repaid with support for the U.K. in the Falklands dispute.