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Iraq: Blair Visits Al-Basrah As British Public Turns Attention To Domestic Issues

  • Charles Recknagel

British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday made his second visit to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, telling British soldiers in Al-Basrah that they are helping make the world safe from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and brutal regimes. Blair has staked his political career on backing the U.S. strategy in Iraq in the face of fierce opposition at home. Will his new visit to Iraq give him a boost?

Prague, 5 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- This is not Tony Blair's first visit to Iraq and it has not grabbed the kind of headlines that his initial trip did in May last year.

That first visit, also to Al-Basrah, was just weeks after a U.S.-British force toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in a rapid victory that belied critics' warnings that a war in Iraq could be a protracted and bloody affair. At the time, Blair's visit -- the first by a Western leader -- had the air of a victory lap after months of facing tough opposition at home.

This month's trip was different. The British prime minister's visit comes just weeks after a November political touchdown in Baghdad by U.S. President George W. Bush and could not help but be overshadowed by it. Whereas Bush's trip fascinated the press with a story of intricate and secretive security arrangements and photos of the president celebrating a holiday with U.S. soldiers, Blair's stopover had no such fanfare to offer.

Still, Blair's visit is noteworthy for the way he chose to define Britain's mission in Iraq in his keynote speech in Al-Basrah. He told the British troops they are "new pioneers of soldiering," fighting against world "chaos" coming in the form of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and brutal regimes.

"Chaos comes today from terrorism, from a particular virus of Islamic extremism that is a perversion of the true faith of Islam but is, nonetheless, incredibly dangerous and which you see literally in every part of the world. And that's one part of the threat. I don't suppose there is a single country around the world at the moment that is not trying to guard against it," Blair said.

He also told the British troops that they are fulfilling a historic mission which people will look back upon with gratitude. "I would like you to know that part of the pride people feel in you is the knowledge that in years to come, people here in this country [Iraq] -- and, I believe, around the world -- will look back on what you've done and give thanks and recognize that they owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude," he said.

Analysts say that Blair's trip may have been aimed at bolstering his government's efforts to rally skeptical British opinion behind the operation in Iraq by explaining it in broad and general terms.

Michael Binyon, diplomatic correspondent for Britain's "The Times," says that in originally arguing for London's participation in the Iraq war, Blair almost exclusively cited the threat of Hussein's weapons programs. In doing so, his government was bitterly charged by critics with overstating its evidence for claiming Baghdad possessed weapons posing an imminent threat to Western security.

But for the past several months, Binyon says, Blair has been trying to recast the war as a necessary humanitarian operation to liberate the Iraqis from a dictatorship and, as a result, build a more stable Mideast. That would bring Blair's rationale for the war closer to the British public's own concerns over security at a time when many feel Britain is vulnerable to strikes by anti-Western groups.

Yet if Blair appears to be recasting the Iraq war and minimizing the weapons-of-mass-destruction issue, he remains far from being free of the controversy the weapons argument has generated among British voters.

Next week, Blair is due to receive the verdict of the government's inquiry into the death last July of David Kelly, a Ministry of Defense scientist. The scientist's family says he was driven to suicide by "intolerable pressure" placed upon him after he privately told a newspaper the government was exaggerating the danger Iraq posed.

Binyon says that the publication of the inquiry -- conducted by Lord James Hutton -- is sure to reignite public interest in the whole weapons of mass destruction question.

"I think [yesterday's Al-Basrah] visit won't really take the heat off [Blair] over Iraq," Binyon said. "The Hutton inquiry, which is also to do with the suicide of the government scientist, is [to be] published next week, in which they are going to look at how the government handled the intelligence information and whether it tried to distort the facts to suit the cases that were put forward as the reason for going into Iraq."

Still -- barring any startling revelations -- time may be on Blair's side for weathering the storm over Hussein's weapons. Political experts say that the British public is gradually losing the sense of urgency it once felt over the prime minister's foreign policies and today is increasingly worrying about domestic issues instead.

Binyon said that "the general mood in Britain today is that Blair has spent too long on foreign adventures and should concentrate more on the things that are upsetting the electorate right now."

Those issues are mostly economic and include how much the government should spend on improving Britain's own faltering public services. Until issues closer to home are addressed, the British public's interest in any of Blair's future trips to Iraq may only diminish.