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Blair Surprises British Troops in Iraq with Visit - 2004-01-04


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made a surprise visit to British troops in Iraq.

The British leader flew into southern Iraq unannounced from his vacation spot at the Egyptian Red Sea resort at Sharm el-Sheikh. He paid a surprise visit to the roughly 10-thousand British troops based in the city of Basra, thanking them for their efforts to, in his words, win the peace by winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

What the Iraqi people want is prosperity. They want security. They want to bring up their families in some peace and decent way of living. And that is what we are trying to do. And so we are trying to help them do it, and your role there is, of course, of immense importance," he said.

The prime minister told the British troops he continues to believe that the war in Iraq was the only way to establish long-term peace and stability. "I would like you to know that part of the pride that people feel in you is the knowledge that, in years to come, people here in this country, and I believe around the world, will look back on what you have done and give thanks, and recognized that they owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude," he said. "And from the bottom of my heart, I thank you very much indeed."

Mr. Blair made several references to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, an issue that has become a major political stumbling block for the British leader. It was his main justification for entering the war, but weapons inspectors still have not found any.

He said Saddam Hussein's Iraq had a proven record of not only developing weapons of mass destruction, but of using them. Mr. Blair called Saddam's regime repressive and abhorrent. He said if the coalition countries had backed away from dealing with that repression in Iraq, they would never be able to confront it in other countries.

After speaking to the British troops and having lunch with them, the prime minister met with the head of the U.S.-led coalition, Paul Bremer, who flew to Basra for the briefing.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Blair toured a local police academy and met some of the new recruits.

It was Mr. Blair's second trip to Iraq since the war, and it follows recent stealth visits by leaders of several other coalition countries, including President Bush and Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar.

British troops are responsible for southeastern Iraq, including the second-largest city, Basra, and the country's main port in Umm Qasr. It is a generally peaceful area, compared with the U.S.-controlled region in the center and north, where attacks against coalition troops are coming at the rate of 20 a day.

Britain originally sent roughly 45,000 troops to Iraq for the original invasion, but the troop numbers have dwindled to about 10,000.

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