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Iraqi War Did Not Increase Terrorism Threat, says British PM - 2004-05-30


British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he does not think the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism worldwide. In a wide-ranging interview on British television, Mr. Blair also spoke about the future of Iraq and his own difficult political situation, due largely to the war.

Interviewed on BBC television, Prime Minister Blair said it is wrong to say that the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces has made the world a less safe place.

"They [terrorists] are there in Iraq now," he said. "They are there in Saudi Arabia. They are in European countries. They are trying to operate here. This is not a question of Iraq having provoked this. It has been going on for a long time, and it is the real security threat that we face. And resolving the situation in Iraq, getting a stable government, not one run by Saddam Hussein, is actually part of resolving this battle against terrorism."

Last week, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded that the war in Iraq has had the effect of increasing membership in the al-Qaeda terrorist network worldwide. The respected institute estimated that the group now has some 18,000 members in 60 countries.

In Sunday's interview, Prime Minister Blair also countered frequent criticism here that the coalition had no real strategy to put in place after the invasion.

"When people say, 'you did not have a plan for Iraq,' we actually had a plan for Iraq," said Mr. Blair. "We are carrying it through. However, the terrorism issue is very, very serious. I mean, there is no doubt that these people, because of the very simple strategy they have, can do a lot of damage."

Asked if he thought that the security situation is worse now than he would have expected a year ago, the British leader said, 'yes.' And he said he anticipates even more difficult days ahead.

"I think, we are at the worst time now and in the months to come, because around the time of the transition to Iraqi sovereignty, these people will be attempting to do whatever they can to disrupt that process, and we will just have to be ready for that," he said.

Last week, Britain's defense secretary announced that 370 additional British troops would be heading to Iraq. There has been much speculation that around 3,000 additional British troops may soon follow them. Prime Minister Blair did not deny that, saying all force-level options remain open. But he also predicted a sharp reduction in the British troop level in Iraq next year.

"I hope very much that, in the coming months, we will see an improvement in security, as the Iraqis build-up their own capability," said Mr. Blair. "And I hope very much, in a year from now, I would want, certainly, by the end of next year, to have a substantial reduction in the British troop commitment."

The British leader also acknowledged that the photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison were a major setback in the cause of winning hearts and minds in the Arab world. But he said the real test of the totality of the coalition's efforts in Iraq will only come later.

"As for whatever damage the pictures have done, the question will be in the end for Iraqis and, I think, for the region, have we in fact made the country better?" he said.

Despite the effect the war has had on his low approval rating in the polls here, Mr. Blair again vowed to lead his Labor party into the next general election, which is expected next year.

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