Blair: Iraq conflict is a war of conscience

Tony Blair says Britain is "four square" behind Iraq's government
Tony Blair says Britain is "four square" behind Iraq's government

Tony Blair has told British troops in Iraq that they are fighting for something countries across the world "believe in".

The prime minister was visiting the 7,000-strong contingent of UK soldiers in Basra at Christmas for the fourth year running as part of his Middle Eastern tour.

Earlier in the day he reiterated his support for the beleaguered Iraqi administration, insisting that Britain remains "four square" behind the fight against insurgency, following talks with his counterpart Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad after a surprise visit to the Iraqi capital.

"All over the world the same struggle is going on and if we don't stand up and fight for the people of tolerance and moderation who want to live together, whatever their fate, then the people of hatred and sectarianism will triumph," Mr Blair told troops in the south of the country.

Earlier this month the influential Iraq Study Group chaired by former US secretary of state James Baker called for the gradual withdrawal of troops from the conflict-stricken Middle Eastern country.

But Mr Blair today said that British forces would remain in the southern city of Basra "until the job is done".

"This isn't a change of our policy. This is our policy. Our policy is that as the Iraqi forces are capable of taking over control of the city of Basra so our forces stand back and go to a support role," he said.

Standing alongside Mr al-Maliki in a joint press conference, the prime minister, who is currently in the middle of a Middle East tour, said that the west would not let Iraqi democracy be "destroyed by terrorism, by sectarianism, by those who wish to live in hatred rather than peace".

He went on to say that all other countries in the region should also support this view, in a veiled reference to Iran and Syria.

"And we will continue to support you all the way in that endeavour which is important for Iraq, important for the region and important for the world," Mr Blair claimed, going on to praise Mr al-Maliki's "courage" in combating insurgents.

But the prime minister's repeated support will come as little comfort to the majority of Iraqis, with civilians suffering the brunt of attacks that claim the lives of about 100 people every day.

Mr Blair's visit today also coincided with the kidnapping of up to 25 aid workers in Baghdad.

He will now travel to Israel, the Palestinian territories and the United Arab Emirates having already held talks in Turkey and Egypt, although it is unclear as to whether Mr Blair's words will have resonance in a region where Britain's pro-US Iraq policy has seen the country's credibility ebb.


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.