| A British soldier at Basra airport. (Reuters)
London, March 25: Tony Blair gave one of his presidential style news conferences at 10, Downing Street, today — and what he didn’t say was just as significant as what he did.
He didn’t say much about the weapons of mass destruction — or “WMD” as Blair likes to call them — which apparently posed the threat that persuaded Britain to go to war in the first place. He concentrated, instead, on the reconstruction of a post-war Iraq, in which he promised that the UN would have the central role backed up by a new Security Council resolution.
Again and again, he stressed that British and American military strategy would be combined with the need to safeguard Iraq’s civilian population and infrastructure and the future for the country would be much brighter once Saddam Hussein and his regime were removed. And they would, he declared.
His press conference was aimed, in part, at the Iraqi people. “They have been let down before. My message to them is that this time we will not let you down. Iraq and its people will have a better future,” he pledged. Humanitarian aid was ready to be moved into Basra once the city was safe, he said, but Blair also made it appear it was the fault of Saddam loyalists for holding up the much needed supplies of medicine, food and water.
Blair confirmed he is due to fly to Camp David tomorrow for talks with President Bush, and that he would return to London after discussions with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, in New York on Thursday. The news that Blair and Bush are meeting suggests that despite what both are saying, developments are not going to plan.
Blair had an explanation for why British and American troops were not being greeted by cheering Iraqis grateful that their country was being “liberated”. His argument was that they would remain scared to show their true feelings until they were absolutely certain that Saddam and his henchmen were gone.
The Prime Minister turned mainly to journalists he knows well, addressing some by their first names — such as Andrew Marr, the BBC’s political editor; Adam Boulton of Sky News; Robin Oakley, who did Marr’s job but now works for CNN; and Elinor Goodman and Jon Snow of Channel 4. There were a few Arab journalists but he did not expose himself to what could be described as a hostile questioning.
His message could be summed up as follows: war is a nasty business, and yes, deaths and tragedies would occur but, at the end, in a process overseen by the UN, a beautiful and democratic Iraq would arise once the shadow of Saddam had vanished from the land. The British and Americans would do everything possible to keep Iraqi civilian casualties to a minimum but the conflict would not be easy because desperate men close to Saddam, who had no future without him, would fight to the finish.
To be sure, there were some awkward questions. The man from New York Times wanted to know if Bush was as keen on the process as Blair was —implying the US would steer clear of the UN. To this, Blair replied that he was convinced Bush would involve the UN since the two leaders had agreed to do so when they met in the Azores.