Blair ready for Al-Qa'ida backlash

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair yesterday delivered a grim warning yesterday that Al-Qa'ida will fight back after the killing of their leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The Prime Minister looked pleased but carefully avoided triumphalism at his monthly press conference in Downing Street at the death of the most wanted terrorist in Iraq whom he said was "most vicious prosecutor" of attempts to quash democracy in Iraq.

"There will be serious attempts, with the formation of the government and the death of al-Zarqawi to fight back," he said. "The death of al-Zarqawi is a strike against al-Qa'ida in Iraq and therefore a strike against al-Qa'ida everywhere. But we have illusions. We know they will continue to kill, there are many obstacles to overcome but they also know that our determination to defeat them is total."

It was a "significant" success, he said, but it would not stop the terrorism. "In Iraq and Afghanistan al-Qa'ida have taken a stand. That is why they fought and will continue to fight very hard. But it's also why we should continue to fight back," said Mr Blair. "This isn't going to change with the death of al-Zarqawi - we shouldn't have any illusions about it."

The Prime Minister refused to go into detail about the operation but he praised the work of the intelligence services who helped to trap him. He also ducked a question about when the coalition forces would kill Osama Bin Laden.

Mr Blair dismissed suggestions that al-Zarqawi was merely a figurehead and insisted that he was a 'hands-on' leader of the foreign fighters.

"I don't think there was any doubt he was a hands-on leader of Al-Qa'ida in Iraq. I don't think there's any doubt about that. But there's no doubt also there will be other people who will want to carry on the killing. There's no doubt about the role he played - he wasn't a figurehead," Mr Blair said.

The killing of al-Zarqawi also took some of the pressure off Mr Blair over the troubles he is facing at home over NHS deficits, unrest about John Prescott, and the debacle at the Home Office. He said he had intended to give a briefing on the NHS reforms, but devoted most of his press conference to the killing of al-Zarqawi and the need to avoid 'defeatism' over the continuing toll of death among Iraqi civilians and British troops.

Clearly worried about the rise in opposition to the continued presence of British troops in Iraq, Mr Blair said: "I think that people have got to try to get into a different mind set on this." Denying the West was losing the battle, he added: "Our mind set has tended to be in a large of Western opinion that if things are terrible, if there is a daily toll of bloodshed in Iraq, that means we shouldn't be there. My answer to that is to turn that round 180 degrees the other way - Iraqi people want democracy and a non-sectarian future, then why isn't it our job to stand with the democrats against the terrorists? If it is difficult, that is not a reason to be defeatist. It's a reason to redouble our efforts to win."

Daud Abdullah, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the international community should not exaggerate the importance of al-Zarqawi's death.

"We think this is going to be a temporary setback to the resistance," he said. "In the context of the overall resistance in Iraq, this is not going to affect it this much. I do not think it will be good to overplay his death and give the impression that this will be the end of the attacks."

Labour MPs are planning to attend a conference tomorrow in London organised by the Stop the War Coalition calling for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP will share a platform with George Galloway, the Respect MP, who was expelled from Labour.

However, Ann Clwyd, chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, said the killing of al-Zarqawi gave impetus to the Iraqi Government to resist the oppression of Iraqi women by Islamic extremists in Basra, highlighted in The Independent yesterday.

Ms Clwyd, who returned after a week in Baghdad meeting women MPs, said: "There is very great concern among women about the pressure put on them to wear the veil or the hijab. I have heard stories of women at the hairdressers being shot. I think there is pressure on women to conform. I really think it is up to the new Iraqi Government to try to get some agreement that women should be able to wear what they want." She said: "The killing of al-Zarqawi gives added impetus to the declarations from the new Government. It adds to their credibility. There is also an agreement to release over 2,000 detainees. I think that was essential. There have been far too many people kept in detention. Most of them are young Sunni men and if they are not charged, they ought to be released. There are a lot more there. The 2,000 is a start but I believe there will be another 2,000 quite soon."

Ms Clwyd added: "Women ministers I met, and not wearing the hijab, were all talking about the pressures to wear what they didn't want to wear." Ms Clwyd said women's demands for freedom had to be enforced by the " majority of the men and the leadership" in Iraq. Mr Blair said he believed in the next few weeks, the Iraqi government would announce measures to impose greater security in Basra to answer the appeals for help from women there.