British Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses the U.S. Congress Thursday amid continuing controversy over the question of pre-war intelligence used by Britain and the United States to justify military action in Iraq. Mr. Blair's address to a joint meeting of the House and Senate comes as U.S. and coalition forces face increased resistance from remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Had the war in Iraq, with the ensuing controversy over intelligence used to justify it not occurred, Tony Blair would probably receive an even warmer welcome than the one he is likely to get on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers in Congress remember that in the days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Mr. Blair was among the first foreign leaders to express condolences to Americans.
In January 2002, he came to Washington to be present during President Bush's first post-attack State of the Union Address. Peter King, a New York Republican who sponsored a House resolution to give Mr. Blair a congressional gold medal, remembers.
"That evening President Bush said, 'Once again we are joined together in a great cause, and we are so honored the British Prime Minister has crossed an ocean to show his unity of purpose with America. Thank you for coming, friend.' Indeed, Tony Blair has been a friend of the United States, but just as important as that he has been a friend and supporter of democratic values, he realizes the unique nature of the bonds between the United States and Britain and indeed between the United States and Europe," said Mr. King.
However, when Congressman King made that statement, Mr. Blair had already been under intense pressure for weeks from government inquiries into information used to justify British participation in the Iraq war.
In House debate on honoring Mr. Blair, lawmakers praised him for his leadership in helping to craft a peace settlement in Northern Ireland and his cooperation in the war on terror, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, some warned against giving him a congressional honor at a time when he faced intense scrutiny on the Iraq intelligence issue, saying it would appear to be "propping up" an embattled politician.
Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey said Mr. Blair deserved credit for acting as a moderating force in the months leading up to the Iraq war.
"But for Tony Blair's insistence, President Bush would have never gone to the United Nations," he said. "It was he, Tony Blair, who made the pre-condition for his support that the United States would go to the United Nations to secure a vote, and for that he deserves enormous credit."
On the eve of Prime Minister Blair's visit, Congressman Markey and 40 other Democrat members of the House sent a letter to President Bush.
In it, they urge the president to ask Mr. Blair to turn over what they call "all relevant intelligence" about alleged Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Africa, saying this would be an opportunity "for both leaders to come clean with the American people and the world."
Before leaving for Washington, Mr. Blair again defended British information about Iraqi uranium purchase attempts, saying London had solid intelligence separate from other information.
Lawmakers expect the British prime minister's speech to Congress to focus on enduring bonds between the United States and Britain, and the need to persevere in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the war on terror.
Meanwhile, back to the gold medal, Prime Minister Blair will not be receiving it on this trip, as many had assumed. It takes several months for a medal to be struck. Also, the House and Senate-approved resolution has only just been sent to President Bush for signature.
Congressional staffers say he will likely return later this year to receive the honor.