British forces will remain in Iraq until at least 2006, Tony Blair signalled yesterday as he staged a lightning trip to Basra to thank troops working for "a noble and a good cause" in the wake of the removal of Saddam Hussein.
In an attempt to justify the war before Lord Hutton's report later this month, the Prime Minister told servicemen and women that their help in transforming a dictatorship into a prosperous democracy meant they were the "new pioneers of 21st century soldiering".
Mr Blair made it clear that he felt that the 30 June deadline to hand Iraq over to an interim, Iraqi-run authority could be met if adequate political and policing structures were put in place.
But just over seven months since he was last in Basra to herald the official end to the conflict, he conceded that the occupying forces still had to "win the peace" before they could consider going home.
British officials said that even after a new Iraqi-run authority was set up, the threat of terrorism would remain and "there will be a large American and British presence" for the foreseeable future. Govern-ment sources said it was likely to be another two years after 30 June before the last British forces pulled out. Only last month, Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, said troops would be out by next year.
Mr Blair flew to Basra from Egypt, where he has spent the past 10 days on a winter holiday with his family, before embarking on a tour that took in a visit to a local police training academy, a speech to 600 troops and talks with members of the Iraqi Governing Council.
The Herculean scale of the task facing the British troops was underlined on the first stop on Mr Blair's packed itinerary, the new Police Training Academy in Az Zubayr, a 15-minute Chinook ride from Basra international airport.
Based in a former prison used to torture opponents of the Saddam regime, a team of 25 British police officers has just started work on re-educating former Iraqi police officers in unarmed combat techniques, witness interviews, statement-taking and "human rights". Around 350 former local policemen are on the course, but more than 6,000 will have to be trained in total by the 30 June deadline.
Other recruiting targets for the new era are equally daunting. As of December, the target strength for the new Iraqi army in the southern sector was 3,000 but not one man has yet been trained. Some 9,000 new police officers are needed, together with 1,400 Iraqi Civil Defence Corps, 1,200 border police and 2,000 oil protection force officers.
However, Mr Blair must have been delighted with the enthusiasm with which he was greeted by the 30 Iraqi recruits yesterday. Ahmed Khalid, 25, put his hand on his heart, an Arabic gesture of respect, as he met the PM. "First, he is Prime Minster, second he had a hand in the liberation of Iraq," Mr Khalid said afterwards.
Another police officer, Munadhi Saadoon, 24, was more prosaic about the benefits brought by the British and Americans. His monthly salary has gone from 20,000 to 200,000 Iraqi dinars, he said.
Mr Blair's next stop was a speech to 600 British troops at the Shaiydah Logistics HQ, 12 kilometres from Basra. Wearing jacket, jeans and a nice Red Sea tan, he was nevertheless breathless and a little nervous when he began to speak from the hastily erected podium.
He repeated the alleged link between rogue states and deadly arsenals and lavished praise on the military for its work in rebuilding a shattered country. Mr Blair showed genuine emotion as he thanked troops "from the bottom of my heart", a catch in his voice unmistakeable. At the end of his speech, the troops paused before they began to clap respectfully.
Mr Blair made one slip when he referred to weapons of "mass distraction". He quickly corrected himself but the damage was done. Paul Bremer, the US head of the Co-alition Provisional Authority, has already dismissed the lack of WMD finds as a "red herring", and Mr Blair would clearly prefer it if the whole issue went away.
Mr Blair was last in Basra when the Today programme aired allegations that Downing Street had "sexed up" an intelligence dossier on Iraq.After a 45-minute chat with diffident troops, Mr Blair headed off to Basra to meet its Iraqi governor at a former presidential palace. He then met Mr Bremer to discuss the progress towards meeting the 30 June deadline and the prospect of troops remaining in the country for two more years.
As he returned to the RAF Hercules Globemaster plane at Basra airport, a deep red sun set beside the bright yellow flames of three burning oil wells on the horizon.
After just seven hours, Mr Blair's trip was over and he was on his way home.
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