| Tony Blair gets a kiss from a schoolboy in Basra on Thursday. (AFP)
Basra, May 29 (Reuters): British Prime Minister Tony Blair brushed aside controversy today over the justification for toppling Saddam Hussein, acclaiming his troops as heroes during a lightning tour of southern Iraq.
On the first visit by a Western leader to post-war Iraq, Blair also put its neighbours Iran and Syria on notice against meddling in the nation’s future or supporting terrorism.
“I know there were a lot of disagreements in the country over the wisdom of my decision to order the action,” Blair told troops at a former Saddam palace as controversy grew over the unproven claims of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. “But I can assure you of one thing — there’s absolutely no dispute in Britain at all about your professionalism, your courage,” Blair added in the southern city of Basra.
“When people look back on this time and look back on this conflict, I honestly believe they will see this as one of the defining moments of the century. And you did it.”
Back in Britain, however, there were new allegations that parliament and the public were duped in the lead-up to the US-led war on Iraq into believing allegations about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
BBC Radio quoted an unnamed senior British official as saying a dossier compiled by the intelligence services had been altered on the request of Blair’s Downing Street office to make it “sexier” by adding a statement that Saddam’s weapons could be ready for use within 45 minutes.
Downing Street denied the claim.
The controversy was further fuelled by US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s comments that the US decision to stress the weapons’ threat was taken for “bureaucratic” reasons. His remarks came a day after US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, justifying why no weapons of mass destruction had been found, said Iraq may have destroyed them before the war.
Flying in from Kuwait on a missile-carrying RAF Hercules and then moving around in a helicopter protected by a machine-gunner, Blair first met Iraq’s US administrator, Paul Bremer, and Britain’s envoy to Iraq, John Sawers, in Basra.
Sawers said Bremer briefed Blair on economic problems, crime, remaining members of Saddam’s Baath party, and most importantly, the “growing concern about Shia Islamism, which is clearly being supported by Iranian elements”.
En route to the Gulf region, Blair had warned Iran and Syria not to meddle in Iraq’s future or support terror groups and militants who may upset hopes of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace moves.
Blair reiterated today that in relation to Syria and Iran, “we’ve still got big issues we need to discuss with them and we need to resolve with them”, even though post-Saddam “we can do that now in a completely different atmosphere”.
On his highly symbolic visit to the area of Iraq controlled by British troops, Blair also visited a local Basra school where he looked slightly bemused as children chattered excitedly and tried to shout some words in English.
At one point, Blair flew over the bombed-out wreck of a yacht used by Saddam. He also drove past captured Iraqi vehicles and rotting camel corpses.
Hand on hip and speaking off the cuff, Blair said the British troops’ capture of the Faw peninsula and Basra in the south had become “famous around the world”. Moving on to the port of Umm Qasr, before returning over the border to Kuwait for departure to Poland, Blair boarded a minesweeper and chatted to British commanders.