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British PM to Visit US, East Asia

British Prime Minister Tony Blair embarks on a week-long around-the-world trip Thursday that will take him to the United States and then East Asia. The Prime Minister's first stop in Washington might have been a triumphant visit by the United States' closest ally in the Iraq war. But it may prove to be the most difficult of the trip.

Mr. Blair will undoubtedly face questions about the U.S. and British claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa to make nuclear weapons. Both the United States and Britain used the claim as they built the case for going to war to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

The claim has now been discredited, but Mr. Blair told parliament Wednesday he believes the intelligence on which it was based could still prove to be credible.

"We know in the 1980s that Iraq purchased from Niger over 270 tons of uranium and therefore it is not beyond the bounds of possibility, let us at least put it like this that they went back to Niger again," he said. "And that is why I stand by entirely the statement that was made in the September dossier."

Prime Minister Blair is likely to get a more polite reception when he addresses the U.S. Congress on Thursday, a rare honor for a foreign leader.

After the Washington visit, Mr. Blair will fly to East Asia for what are being described as key bilateral discussions on economic and political issues.

Trade should predominate his talks in Japan, which is a major investor in Britain. He is scheduled to meet with business leaders and Japan's prime minister. Then it is on to South Korea and China.

Closing the trip, Prime Minister Blair will stop in Hong Kong, with which Britain has long historical ties. The British Foreign Office Wednesday welcomed the announcement by Hong Kong's chief executive of significant changes to proposed security legislation. Spokesman Bill Rammell said it shows that the government is listening to the people of Hong Kong who have been demonstrating recently to preserve what they see as their long-held rights and freedoms.