- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

BASRA, Iraq — The rebuilding of Iraq is entering a critical stage, with just six months to restore order before the return to self-rule, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said during a surprise visit yesterday.

His top envoy, meanwhile, warned that insurgents are growing more sophisticated and are planning bigger attacks.

Mr. Blair, who visited British troops in southern Iraq, said security there would be monitored closely as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to transfer authority to a transitional Iraqi government by July 1.

“The important thing is to realize we are about to enter into a very critical six months,” the prime minister said on the return flight. “We have got to get on top of the security situation properly, and we have got to manage the transition. Both of those things are going to be difficult.”

Britain’s senior diplomat in Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, earlier underscored the challenge facing coalition forces.

“The opposition is getting more sophisticated, using bigger bombs and more sophisticated controls,” Mr. Greenstock said. “We will go on seeing bigger bangs.”

On New Year’s Eve, a 500-pound car bomb killed eight persons celebrating in an upscale restaurant in Baghdad. On Dec. 27, coordinated strikes struck the southern city of Karbala, killing 19 persons, including seven coalition troops, and wounding about 170.

Fighters loyal to deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein are behind 75 percent to 80 percent of the attacks, while foreign terror groups, using a cell structure, are responsible for the rest, Mr. Greenstock said.

Mr. Blair, a staunch ally of the United States whose popularity plummeted at home amid charges that his government overstated the threat posed by Saddam, defended the Iraq invasion.

“This conflict here was a conflict of enormous importance because Iraq was a test case,” he said in a speech to some of the 10,000 British troops stationed in and around Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

“If we backed away from that, we would never be able to confront this threat in the other countries where it exists.”

Mr. Blair flew into Iraq’s second-largest city by military aircraft from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, where he was vacationing with his family.

He visited a new police academy in the town of Az Zubayr, where he watched Iraqi officers conduct self-defense training. He met military police from Britain, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Italy.

Mr. Blair met the governor of Basra, Judge Wael Abdullatif, at one of Saddam’s former palaces, a marble and mosaic expanse that is a base for Britain’s 20th Armored Brigade. The governor thanked the British leader for helping rid Iraq of Saddam’s dictatorship.

Mr. Blair’s trip comes after President Bush’s surprise Thanksgiving Day visit on Nov. 27 to Baghdad and a visit by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar on Dec. 20. Mr. Blair last visited Iraq in May.

Britain sent about 46,000 troops to the Gulf region and has reported 52 deaths.

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