Mr Blair's big day out in Basra: he shook hands, kissed children and adopted a Churchillian tone

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The Independent Online

Mindful of the perils of wearing dark shirts in the heat, Tony Blair's image makers had clearly flicked through the latest edition of Italian Vogue for inspiration. The style connoisseur's bible features in its May issue an 18-page fashion shoot entirely dedicated to "The Power of the White Shirt", starring a gaggle of tanned, pouting supermodels flouncing around a desert, while wearing white shirts.

And for a man whose handling of the war in Iraq has appeared a little muddier of late, a white shirt must have seemed the perfect garment to wear as his Gulf victory tour arrived in Iraq yesterday and he stepped from the RAF C130 on to the steaming runway at Basra.

Mr Blair is well aware prime ministerial garb can easily make or break a photo opportunity. He has not forgotten the unfortunate incident with the blue shirt and the hot lights at the Labour Party conference in 2000. But how could he lose when all those round him were head-to-toe in desert khaki? Thus it was yesterday, that the man in the white shirt stood in the porch of the grandest of the 14 opulent buildings that make up "Saddam's Palace" to take the place of the deposed leader, his shirt shimmering among the drab uniforms of his military escorts.

In the former splendour of a building where Saddam probably lay his head, Mr Blair stood, hand on hips, beneath the Arabic inscriptions glorifying the former dictator, and addressed the troops. "When people look back on this time, I honestly believe they will see this as one of the finest moments of our century, and you did it,'' he told his audience, solemnly.

He had an equally rapt audience earlier, when he made his first call of the day to the Kahdija al-Kubra primary school, restored and redecorated with UK money. Schools such as these are said to have been used by the Baathists to store weapons; Mr Blair used it in the manner of a campaigning politician. As he was surrounded by swarms of youngsters in the school yard, he hoisted up into his arms one boy, who landed him a loud kiss on the cheek.

This was the first visit by a Western leader to postwar Iraq and, apart from a short business meeting with the most senior US and British officials on the spot to discuss the threat from Iran-backed Shia extremism in the south, the day was mostly spent shaking hands and being photographed.

From the school, he was driven to the opulent palace, which has been taken over as the headquarters of the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats. The British have renamed it Allsopp Lines, in memory of Sapper Luke Allsopp, who was killed in action in Iraq. Mr Blair told his audience of 150 servicemen and women that Britain's rapid and relatively bloodless victory in south Iraq, and the reconstruction work they have been doing since, "is famous throughout the world".

Mr Blair spoke to the troops in a low-key tone but the content of what he said was almost Churchillian. He said the achievements of British forces in occupying southern Iraq and helping reconstruct it had "made Britain hold its head up high", adding: "You fought the battle. You won the battle. You did it with great courage and valour but you did not stop there. You went on to try and make something of the country you liberated and that is a lesson for armed forces the world over. The liberation from Saddam is one huge thing, a momentous and mighty act of which you can be proud."

Despite the extreme luxury of their surroundings, the British soldiers are probably less comfortable here than they were back in the barracks in Germany, where they had been posted. Some have to sleep on the marble floors or the roofs, and instead of using those infamous bathrooms, they have to make do with basic, unisex portable loos. They also have to cope with the intense desert heat, which has put some of them in hospital.

After his five-minute speech, Mr Blair stayed for more than half an hour, shaking hands and exchanging banter with the troops and signing their khaki shirts with a film-star flourish. Then, a Chinook helicopter rushed him to his next appointment to meet the crew of the minesweeper HMS Ramsey at the country's only deep-water port, Umm Qasr.

By yesterday evening, he was in Warsaw for the next leg of an exhausting six-day tour of five countries. The British are having an easier time controlling the southern provinces of Basra and Maysan than the Americans in Baghdad, largely because the Shia population in the area was overwhelmingly relieved to see the back of Saddam Hussein. Even so, there are dangers, of which the most serious is the rise of Shia militancy.

From Sunday, the British will ban anyone from carrying weapons above a certain calibre, unless they are in uniform and have obtained a gun licence. The move is aimed primarily at the Badr Brigade, a Shia militia trained in Iran.

As Mr Blair addressed the troops, below him lay the Shatt al-Arab waterway, over which Iraq fought its war with Iran. Far along the river, the skyline was disfigured by the shattered hulk of Saddam Hussein's luxury yacht. Though it served no military purpose, this huge craft was repeatedly bombed by the American and British, apparently as an act of personal retribution against the Iraqi dictator, but amazingly, it is still afloat.

Yet for the new leader in town, the day was a triumph, at least on most counts. While his shirt looked wrinkle-free and damp-free by the end of the day, his high-waisted, dark blue trousers would have made Simon Cowell blush.

Additional reporting by Susie Rushton

A flying visit

9am Tony Blair arrives in Basra on an RAF Hercules from Kuwait. Meets British commanders.

10am In Basra airport's VIP suite, once reserved for Saddam and his associates, Mr Blair meets John Sawers, the UK special representative, and Paul "Jerry" Bremer, head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

11am At a school on the outskirts of Basra, which reopened with Ministry of Defence funding, a boy kisses Mr Blair's cheek. He tells them: "You children are the future for this country."

Noon Addressing 400 British troops from the verandah of a former presidential palace, Mr Blair tells them their actions were "one of the defining moments of the century".

1.30pm Mr Blair is taken by helicopter to the southern port of Umm Qasr, run by British forces and a gateway for aid.

2.30pm Mr Blair boards the minesweeper HMS Ramsey.

4pm Mr Blair returns to Kuwait City for a flight to Warsaw.