- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on his last visit to Iraq before stepping down in June, yesterday urged Iraq’s leaders to speed up reconciliation efforts to end the violence in the country and promised that Britain will continue to be engaged in the country.

Mr. Blair, whose prime ministership has been dominated by his unpopular decision to join the Iraq war, said he thought security was improving in Iraq, but he acknowledged mortar attacks and terrorist attacks were still daily occurrences.

“Iraq was liberated from the terrible dictatorship of Saddam [Hussein], and now there are attempts to oppress it in different ways with terrorism and violence,” he said.

After his brief visit to the Green Zone, Mr. Blair flew to Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, where most of Britain’s troops have been stationed. At coalition headquarters in Basra airport, he chatted and shared a cup of tea with British, U.S., Danish and Australian troops.

In his meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, Mr. Blair urged them to speed up reconciliation efforts between Iraq’s divided communities by calling new provincial elections and bringing tribal leaders and others linked to violence into the political process.

Mr. Blair also told the Iraqi leaders that Britain would continue to support them after he left office on June 27.

President Bush’s strongest supporter on the Iraq war, he told reporters later that he had no regrets about supporting the U.S.-led invasion to remove Saddam. The war affected Mr. Blair’s popularity ratings at home and drew criticism, even from some members of his Labor Party.

Former President Jimmy Carter denounced Mr. Blair’s loyal relationship with Washington yesterday, calling it “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,” Mr. Carter told British Broadcasting Corp. Radio.

Treasury chief Gordon Brown, who is expected to become prime minister next month, has promised to continue Mr. Blair’s policies on Iraq, but reports from Britain say he might be forced to cool off the support for Washington to build popularity at home.

London’s Sunday Telegraph reported today that Mr. Bush has been warned by U.S. officials to expect an announcement on British troop withdrawals from Mr. Brown during his first 100 days in power.

“The American view is that he’s a much weaker political leader than Blair. There’s the fear in Washington that he won’t be as strong an ally,” the newspaper quoted Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, who discussed Iraq policy at the White House last week, as saying.

Nigel Griffiths, a former British Cabinet minister and close ally of Mr. Brown, told the newspaper: “We should get out of Iraq as soon as is practicable. We should consult the Iraqi government, but they cannot have a veto. This cannot be delayed. We must make our timetable known to the Iraqis.”

Britain has almost completed the process of pulling about 1,600 troops out of Iraq, leaving a force of about 5,500 based mainly on the fringes of the southern city of Basra.

Troop levels are likely to fall below 5,000 in late summer, but Mr. Blair has said British soldiers will stay in the Basra region until at least next year to train local forces, patrol the Iran-Iraq border and secure supply routes.

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