Disaster? Just a slip, says Blair. Now Iraq's your problem, Gordon

Brown's visit to troops overshadowed by PM's gaffe
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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown was left defending Britain's presence in Iraq yesterday as Tony Blair denied he thought that the invasion had been a "disaster". Interviewed on al-Jazeera on Friday, Mr Blair was asked if he thought that the military intervention had been "pretty much of a disaster". "It has," he replied, before blaming the difficulties on al-Qa'ida-inspired insurgents.

But the Prime Minister's spokesman yesterday insisted that his apparent concession was a "straightforward slip of the tongue". The fall-out from the gaffe overshadowed the Chancellor's first visit to Iraq, where he pledged £100m of reconstruction aid over the next three years. Mr Brown had hoped that his visit would reassure soldiers and the serving public that a government led by him will have a clear strategy to bring troops home from a stable Iraq.

But attention was firmly focused on Mr Blair's remarks as the Prime Minister flew to Pakistan for an official visit. His spokesman told reporters travelling with him that Mr Blair did not, after all, agree that the invasion had been a disaster. "He doesn't think that a democratically-elected government in Iraq is a disaster; he doesn't think that getting rid of Saddam was a disaster, but he does acknowledge there are difficulties, and he doesn't try to downplay those."

The explanation left Opposition figures unimpressed. Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "It tells you all you want to know about this government that No 10 has to indulge in semantics to explain away the Prime Minister's admission. 'Disaster' is precisely how the vast majority of MPs and the British people regard the situation in Iraq. It is time to recognise reality and adopt a strategy that leads to a phased withdrawal."

Mr Brown, however, stressed that Britain was in Iraq for the long haul and that the reconstruction programme would help deliver security, along with jobs. He said he had discussed a series of infrastructure projects that would get "people back to work and give a signal to the world that Iraq is going to run its own affairs. What I'm saying today is we could provide an extra £100m over the next three years to help with the economic regeneration programme."

Mr Blair arrived in Pakistan offering a doubling of economic aid to that country.