Blair: From Iraq to World Bank?
Published Date: May 20, 2007
BAGHDAD: British Prime Minister Tony Blair made one last visit to Iraq before leaving office next month, promising Iraq’s leaders yesterday that they can count on British support even as an explosion hit the British Embassy compound just before he arrived there, security officials said. The blast, one of three explosives fired into the increasingly targeted Green Zone, underscored the violence that continues to plague the country. The barrage wounded one person, said US Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor.
Separately, rumors have circulated in past days that Blair, a loyal ally of US President George W Bush who made a farewell trip to the White House this week, could be tapped for the post of World Bank president after Paul Wolfowitz resigned. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winning economist and former senior vice president and chief economist at the bank, told BBC radio that Blair "is one of the people that is clearly being discussed."
When Blair visited British forces in southern Iraq later in the day, two mortar rounds exploded nearby, causing no injuries, British military officials said. Blair appeared unflustered by the attacks and shrugged his shoulders to waiting journalists. Blair, who was on his seventh visit here, said he believed security was improving, but acknowledged that shelling and bombings were still a daily part of life. "Every time there is an attempt to make progress, of course the terrorists redouble their efforts, and our response should not be then to walk away or to give in. It should be to stand up to them. Because they don’t represent the true will of the Iraqi people," he said.
Standing with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at a news conference, Blair appeared irritated at repeated questions about the high levels of violence here. Blair said the next British government, which will be headed current Treasury chief Gordon Brown, will continue to support Iraq after Blair leaves office in June. "The policy that I pursued is a policy for the whole of the government, so even when I leave office I am sure that that steadfast support will continue," he said.
Blair said he urged the two Iraqi leaders to speed up reconciliation between Iraq’s divided communities by calling new provincial elections and increasing efforts to bring tribal leaders and others linked to violence into the political process. Al-Maliki said the government had made huge strides in fighting the insurgents. "What they (insurgents) are doing now is nothing compared to what they had planned for the destruction of the political process in Iraq," he said. Blair, whose premiership has been dominated by his unpopular decision to join the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam, arrived in Iraq via Kuwait, following talks in Washington with President George W Bush on Thursday. After his brief visit to the Green Zone yesterday, Blair flew to Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 550 km southeast of Baghdad.
At coalition headquarters in Basra airport, he chatted and shared a cup of tea with British, US, Danish and Australian troops. Blair told the troops it would be his final opportunity to thank them for their bravery and said their work in Iraq against Al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents and Iranian-backed militias was critical to global security. "If we don’t sort this region out, then there is a very troubled and difficult future for the world ahead of us," Blair said, standing on flight of stairs as he addressed several hundred troops in Basra.
One British marine asked him how long he expected US forces to remain in Iraq. "I think the Americans will be here, at least in a limited capacity, for a very significant period of time," Blair said. Britain has almost completed the process of pulling about 1,600 troops out of Iraq, leaving a force of around 5,500 based mainly on the fringes of the southern city of Basra. Troops levels are likely to fall below 5,000 in late summer, but Blair has said British soldiers will stay in the Basra region until at least 2008 to train local forces, patrol the Iran-Iraq border and secure supply routes.
In an emotional resignation speech to members of his Labour party last week, Blair acknowledged violence directed at civilians and coalition troops in Iraq has been "fierce and unrelenting and costly." A mounting military death toll – 148 British troops have died in Iraq since the start of the 2003 invasion – has led some Britons to call for Brown to speed up the withdrawal of British soldiers and to cool relations with Bush. Brown said last Sunday that Britain was "a divided country over Iraq," but claimed most citizens – even those opposed to the invasion – accepted that it is in their interests to support Al-Maliki’s administration.
Former US president Jimmy Carter yesterday attacked Blair for his support of Bush’s strategy in Iraq, which he dubbed: Abominable. Loyal, blind, apparently subservient. "I think that the almost undeviating support by Great Britain for the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq have been a major tragedy for the world," Carter added in a BBC radio interview. – Agencies