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Blair Plays Down Basra Demonstrations

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has played down the significance of demonstrations in southern Iraq, such as the one Thursday by protesters demanding early elections.

The prime minister told his monthly news conference Thursday that British troops are prepared to maintain law and order if demonstrations turn violent.

"A lot of local Iraqis feel very strongly that the British troops should maintain order and that people, of course, can demonstrate," he said. "But that does not mean to say that those demonstrations, if they become violent, should not be properly dealt with."

Mr. Blair spoke just hours after tens of thousands of protesters marched in Basra in support of a senior ayatollah's calls for early elections.

British troops are in charge of security in Basra, Iraq's second biggest city.

Iraqi police joined British forces in monitoring the demonstration but there were no violent incidents. The British military says a roadside bomb was discovered and defused but there is no evidence linking it to the protest.

Prime Minister Blair recently visited Basra and he says the protesters represent only a small percentage of public opinion.

"The demonstrators are a small minority of the local Iraqi population," he noted. "They now have the freedom to demonstrate. They never had it under Saddam but they've got it now."

In another Iraq-related development, Mr. Blair declined to comment on the case of British Army Sergeant Steve Roberts, who was killed during the March invasion of Iraq after being ordered to hand back his body armor because commanders said it was not needed.

The sergeant's widow, Samantha Roberts, has released a taped diary her husband made three days before his death, in which he said he knew he was going to war without the proper equipment.

The opposition Conservative Party has called for Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon to resign for sending ill-equipped troops into combat.

Mr. Blair expressed condolences to Mrs. Roberts, but said he could not comment further because the case is still under investigation.