Blair has no plans to leave Iraq, Downing Street

British Prime Minister Tony Blair let it be known on Tuesday that he will not pull out of Iraq soon, or rush to pass the reins of power to his finance minister and heir apparent Gordon Brown.

In what aides called a “policy-rich” speech to the Labour Party’s annual conference, Blair said that after eight years in government, the time is ripe to “change again” and reapply Labour values to a changing world.

“This is a country today that increasingly sets the standard,” he said. “Not for us the malaise of France or the angst of Germany… Occasionally it’s worth saying: Britain is a great country and we are proud of it.”

But on the two big questions hanging over the Labour conference in seaside Brighton this week—Iraq and his own future in Downing Street—Blair gave no sign of a U-turn.

Despite the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, he said there will be no pull-out of the 8 500 British troops deployed mainly in the south of country, at least until nationwide elections planned for December.

He called Iraq the “fiercest” front in a “global struggle” against terrorism that has allied itself “with every reactionary element in the Middle East”.

“The way to stop the innocent dying is not retreat, to withdraw, to hand these [Iraqi] people over to the mercy of religious fanatics or relics of Saddam, but to stand up for their right to decide their government in the same democratic way the British people do,” he said.

In a clear reference to the London suicide bombings in July, he said terrorists are “using 21st-century technology to fight a pre-medieval religious war that is utterly alien to the future of humankind”.

On his own future, Blair—bolstered by Labour’s re-election in May—held back from saying when exactly he will exit Downing Street, after having declared immediately after last year’s party conference that he would, if re-elected, serve a full third term and then go.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Brown, who has long coveted the top job, staked his claim to it on Monday when he told the Brighton conference that he wants “a great British society” with Labour lording it over the political centre.

Blair made no direct reference to his own intentions, but the forward-looking tone of his 45-minute speech indicated that he intends to stay in office for some time yet to solidify ongoing reforms in health, education, and law and order.

His lawyer wife, Cherie, was slightly more helpful earlier in the day. When asked by a reporter about the timing of her husband’s departure from office, she replied: “Darling, that is a long way in the future.”

Some of the strongest parts of Blair’s speech dealt with the need to embrace globalisation.

“They’re not embracing it in China and India,” said Blair, who was in both Asian powerhouses two weeks ago.
“They are seizing its possibilities, in a way that will transform their lives and ours.”

With Britain holding the rotating European Union presidency until the end of this year, he said the British people must “remain strong partners in Europe ... no matter how difficult”.

“By all means, let us fight for reform in Europe,” he said, “but to isolate ourselves from the world’s largest commercial market, in which over 50% of our trade is done, is just a crazy policy.”

But he also defended his close ties with United States President George Bush, albeit without uttering his name.

“Britain should also remain the strongest ally of the US ... I never doubted that after September 11 [2001] that our place was alongside America, and I don’t doubt it now.”—AFP

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