Aboard Blair’s Airliner, May 28 (Reuters): Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed today he would make a lightning visit to thank British troops in Iraq, becoming the first foreign leader to visit the country since the war.
Blair, who would visit Iraq tomorrow, said he “wanted to thank them for their magnificent performance, and take stock of humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.”
“There’s a lot of work still to be done to put things right in Iraq,” he said aboard an airliner heading to Kuwait.
He said life was returning to normal in the southern city of Basra, which is controlled by British forces. But in the capital Baghdad, where US troops have been in charge since taking the city on April 9, he said “serious security problems” remained.
Blair's visit follows the death of two U.S. soldiers on Tuesday at the hands of Iraqis near Baghdad, highlighting the difficulties of restoring law and order.
He repeated his insistence that U.S. and British troops would find weapons of mass destruction. Washington and London said their war in Iraq was justified because Baghdad possessed chemical and biological weapons, although none have been found.
”I've got absolutely no doubt at all we will find such weapons,” Blair said. But he said Britain's main focus was now on humanitarian work and political reconstruction.
On Wednesday, Blair will meet officials in Kuwait, which served as the launchpad for the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq, to thank them for their role.
Blair, who stood side-by-side with U.S. President George W. Bush in his campaign to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, gambled his political career on the Iraq war.
His popularity level plummeted ahead of the campaign and he suffered the worst parliamentary rebellion of his premiership from his own Labour Party on a war vote. The majority of the public backed British troops once fighting began.
Blair's trip will also take him to Poland and Russia. Poland, which will enter the European Union when it enlarges next year, is to command peacekeepers in part of Iraq beginning this summer.
Blair's tour will wind up in Evian, France, at the annual G8 summit at the weekend where Bush and Blair will confront some of their fiercest critics over the Iraq war, which split Europe.