Blair calls for critics of Iraq war to focus on rebuilding the country

Tony Blair denounced resurgent anti-Americanism in Britain last night as he called for his Iraq war critics to channel their energies into rebuilding the country. He also said troops could remain in Iraq for years to ensure it was fully on the road to democracy, prosperity and peace.

He delivered his message as anti-war campaigners prepared for demonstrations during President George Bush's visit to London next week.

"Protest if you will," he said. "That is your democratic right. Attack the decision to go to war, though have the integrity to realise that without it, those Iraqis now tasting freedom would still be under the lash of Saddam, his sons and their henchmen. But accept that the task is not to argue about what has been, but to make what is happening now work, and work for the very Iraqis we all say we want to help."

In his annual foreign policy speech to the Lord Mayor's Banquet in London, he said the situation in Iraq was the "battle of seminal importance for the early 21st century".

He said: "It will define relations between the Muslim world and the West. It will influence profoundly the development of Arab states and the Middle East. It will have far-reaching implications for the future conduct of American and Western democracy." Mr Blair said Britain and "those supposedly evil Americans" had to take on the "large body" of opinion that claimed the Allied forces were an army of occupation, wanted to suppress Muslims and steal Iraqi oil, and had brought terrorist attacks on them. Their view is: you should never have been there and [should] get out now.

He pointed to progress in health care, law and order, water supplies and press freedom, and said the forces wereopposed only by "Saddam's small rump of supporters aided and abetted by foreign terrorists".

The "rebirth of Iraq" would mean the "death of the poisonous propaganda monster about America these extremists have created in the mind of much of the world", he said.

"It is precisely for that reason we must not give up or retreat one inch until Iraq is truly free of this menace."

Mr Blair also struck an upbeat note about Britain's role in Europe. In what could be seen as a swipe at the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who angered Downing Street with forays into European policy last week, the Prime Minister said it was hard to keep a clear vision when "the clatter of political intrigue and day-to-day policy from the petty to the profound swirls around you.

"There is no other area of policy in which so many otherwise sensible people urged me to a position so completely self-defeating for the proper interests of Britain," he said.

He played down the rows over the European constitution and co-operation on defence, saying Euroscepticism was "vocal just at the point when it makes least sense in terms of Britain's relations with Europe".

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