He told the British troops the people of Basra will “look back and remember what you did and recognize that as the start of their future and a life of hope and the possibility of prosperity.”
Blair is the first Western leader to visit postwar Iraq, touring Basra and the port town of Umm Qasr after being flown in on a military transport plane from Kuwait. He also visited a school and held talks with officials from Britain, the United States and Iraq during his six-hour visit.
In his speech to British soldiers, Blair acknowledged the deep divisions in public and political opinion that led up to his decision to send them into the U.S.-led war to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
“I know there are a lot of disagreements in the country about the wisdom of my decision to order the action, but I can assure you of one thing: there is absolutely no dispute in Britain at all about your professionalism and your courage and your dedication,” he said.
“And not just of the way you won the war, which was extraordinary, but the way that you are conducting the peace, which is remarkable,” he told some 400 troops who had gathered at one of Saddam’s former presidential palaces in Basra.
“I think that when people look back at this time and this conflict, I honestly believe they will see this as one of the defining moments of our century and you did it,” he added later.
Although many British troops have withdrawn from Iraq since the end of major combat six weeks ago, some 20,000 soldiers still remain based in the south of the country.
British military personnel appeared to welcome Blair’s visit, according to reporters on the scene.
“I was very pleased he came. It was good of him to come and give us a bit of praise especially for the front line troops, it was great for them to get the recognition,” Lance Corporal Yasmin Yafai told the BBC.
Blair held talks with Britain’s special representative in Iraq, John Sawers, and L. Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
In a separate development in Iraq on Thursday, an American soldier was killed when a convoy came under fire from a rocket- propelled grenade on a main supply route near Baghdad.
In a brief statement, U.S. Central Command confirmed that an American was killed by hostile fire but did not release the soldier’s name and unit pending family notification.
The Pentagon said that the soldier was in the last of about a dozen vehicles traveling some 25 miles north of Baghdad when his vehicle was hit by the grenade, according to the Associated Press.
Central Command has reported that five American service members have been killed this week by hostile fire.
According to Central Command, U.S. soldiers continue to “aggressively” patrol Iraq in order to stop crime, eliminate weapons from civilian areas and curb the black market for fuel and other supplies.