Published Thursday, May 29, 2003
Blair Visits Iraq, Praises British Troops
The Associated Press
British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday became the first foreign leader to visit postwar Iraq, telling his nation's troops that their invasion was professional and their methods of keeping the peace have been "remarkable."
Blair arrived in this southern city in a Royal Air Force Hercules C-130 transport plane after flying from Kuwait. He was met at Basra airport by Gen. Peter Wall, commander of the British 1st Division.
The prime minister acknowledged the divisions in Britain about the war's wisdom but said there was no difference of opinion about the forces themselves.
"This wasn't the pretend stuff that happens in films. It was real war, with real bloodshed and real casualties," Blair told about 400 troops, speaking at one of Saddam Hussein's former presidential palaces.
"And there were people you will have known that aren't going back home. And we grieve for them, and we pay respect to them for everything they did and the sacrifice that they made," he said.
Although numerous British troops have pulled out of Iraq since the end of combat six weeks ago, about 20,000 soldiers still remain based in the south of the country.
The coalition that unseated Saddam was led by the United States, with Britain as its top ally - a decision that caused Blair serious political problems at home.
Blair, wearing a white open-necked shirt and dark blue chino trousers, chatted briefly to Wall and other commanders before going in for an hour-long private briefing in the VIP suite once reserved for Saddam and his cronies, the British agency Press Association reported.
Blair held talks with Britain's special representative in Iraq, John Sawers, and L. Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
He said the invasion of Iraq has reconfigured the region and created an environment where real progress is possible - from the Israeli-Palestinian problem to relations with Syria and Iran.
"The liberation from Saddam is one huge thing, a momentous and a mighty act for the people of Iraq, which you did, and of which you can be proud," he said.
"But something else is happening right throughout the whole of this region," he added. "You know I think that this area of the world has been the source of probably more instability, more terrorism, more difficulty in managing world affairs than any other region in the world."
Bremer and Blair discussed Iraq's economic problems, security issues - particularly with Baath Party holdouts - and concerns about Iranian-influenced activity linked to Iraq's Shiite Muslim activists, Sawers said.
"There is a security problem here, (especially) in Baghdad, where the Baathist regime was at its strongest and where crime has been most difficult to get on top of," Sawers said.
But, quoting Bremer, Sawers said local Shiite clerics were "hugely grateful" for the overthrow of Saddam.
Earlier, at a local school, Blair said the teachers were doing a well in getting back on track after the fighting.
"I think you have done a magnificent job," Blair told pupils and teachers, speaking through an interpreter in a school courtyard. "I think you can be so proud of what you have achieved here."
Through an interpreter, he added, "We from my country and the people here are delighted to have helped you in this regard."
Blair also told his troops to keep doing their job.
"You fought the battle, you won the battle, and you fought it with great courage and valor," he said. "But it didn't stop there. You then went on to try to make something of the country you had liberated. And I think that's a lesson for armed forces everywhere, the world over."
He added: "I know there were a lot of disagreements in the country about the wisdom of my decision to order the action, but I can assure you of one thing: There is absolutely no dispute in Britain at all about your professionalism, and your courage and your dedication. And not just the way you won the war, which was extraordinary; but the way you are conducting the peace, which is remarkable."