IMAGE: Tony Blair in Basra, Iraq
Peter Macdiarmid  /  Reuters
British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks to military personnel in Basra, Iraq, on Sunday.
updated 1/4/2004 6:49:19 PM ET 2004-01-04T23:49:19

British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Iraq on Sunday, declaring the occupation is at a critical stage with just six months to restore order ahead of the return to self-rule. His top envoy warned that insurgents are growing more sophisticated and planning bigger attacks.

Blair, visiting southern Iraq, said security in Iraq would be monitored closely as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to transfer authority to a transitional Iraqi government by July 1.

“The important thing is to realize we are about to enter into a very critical six months,” the prime minister said on his flight home. “We have got to get on top of the security situation properly and we have got to manage the transition. Both of those things are going to be difficult.”

Blair’s senior diplomat in Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, earlier underscored the challenge facing coalition forces.

“The opposition is getting more sophisticated, using bigger bombs and more sophisticated controls,” Greenstock said. “We will go on seeing bigger bangs.”

A thank-you in Basra
Blair visited the southern city of Basra to thank British troops for their part in the war and meet with military commanders.

Blair said the former regime of Saddam Hussein was "abhorrent" and that the U.S.-led campaign to topple the Iraqi dictator was vital to global stability.

"If we backed away from that, we would never be able to confront this threat in the other countries where it exists," he said, in his speech to some of the 10,000 British troops stationed in and around Basra.

"No government that owes its position to the will of the people will spend billions of pounds on chemical and biological and nuclear weapons whilst their people live in poverty," he said.

"Brutal and repressive states that don't actually have the support or consent of their people that are developing weapons which can cause destruction on a massive scale are a huge, huge liability to the whole security of the world," he said.

He also referred to "the virus of Islamic extremism that is a perversion of the true faith of Islam."

Police academy visit
Blair, whose political fortunes have wavered due to his support for President Bush, flew into Iraq's second-largest city by military aircraft from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where he was on vacation with his family.

Blair first visited a new police academy in the small town of Az Zubayr, where he watched Iraqi officers being trained in self defense, then chatted and shook hands with British police officers and military police from Britain, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Italy.

British detective Winton Keenan, who heads the new academy, said they planned to train 6,000 students over the next six months at the heavily guarded compound which is a former prison.

"All we want to do is ensure that we give them the best possible start in democratic policing. We are making sure there is an awareness of fundamental human rights policing," he said.

In gray pants, a blue shirt and a navy jacket, Blair made the 10-minute flight to the academy from Basra in a British Army Air Corps Chinook helicopter guarded by rear and side machine gunners.

Blair last visited British troops in Basra in May. His latest trip follows President Bush's surprise Thanksgiving Day visit on Nov. 27 to Baghdad and a visit by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar on Dec. 20.

Blair continues to staunchly defend the war, despite the coalition's failure to find evidence of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons and continued violence against U.S.-led occupation forces.

Slumping popularity
Blair gambled his political fortunes on committing Britain to the war, in the face of widespread public opposition and dissent among many lawmakers in his governing Labor Party.

Despite the quick fall of Baghdad, Blair's popularity slumped amid accusations his government exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam's illicit arsenal to convince a skeptical public of the need for war.

The issue is likely to be thrown back into the spotlight later this month, with the expected verdict of a judicial inquiry into the suicide of weapons inspector David Kelly.

The British scientist killed himself after being named as the source of a British Broadcasting Corp. report that the government "sexed up" an intelligence dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

"I am confident that the Iraq survey group, when it does its work, will find what has happened to those weapons," Blair said in a December interview with the BBC Arabic service. He said "there is absolutely no doubt at all" that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

Britain sent about 46,000 British troops to the Gulf region and during the swift campaign to topple Saddam played a key role in securing oil fields and important cities in southern Iraq.

Britain still has about 10,000 military personnel in and around southeastern Iraq, and infantry units are engaged in training Iraqi soldiers and police in the country. The British military has reported 52 deaths.

Blair flew to Basra from Sharm el-Sheik, where he had been vacationing when a charter jet full of French tourists crashed into the Red Sea early Saturday, killing all 148 people aboard. Officials blamed mechanical failure. Blair issued a statement of condolence.

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