BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Britain’s Tony Blair on Saturday paid his final visit as prime minister to Iraq, a country whose future may define the legacy of his decade in power. He flew into Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone to meet President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to discuss how to push for greater political reconciliation in a country fractured by sectarian violence.
A mortar, part of a pattern of daily bombardments, landed in the Green Zone as Blair arrived, witnesses said. But Blair’s spokesman said: “No information suggest that this was other than usual business.”
Blair’s decision to join U.S. President George W. Bush and send British troops to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 despite huge opposition at home was the defining moment of his rule.
Lingering resentment from the public and within the ruling Labour Party over Blair’s steadfast support for Bush and the war ultimately forced him to cut short his third term. He will quit on June 27 and finance minister Gordon Brown will take over.
Four years after the invasion, U.S. and British forces face daily attacks from insurgents, sectarian violence is undermining the state and officials within and outside Maliki’s coalition admit stabilising Iraq is almost a “mission impossible.” But Blair believes there have been positive political developments and he wants to discuss a coherent plan with Maliki to see faster progress.
“We need to take advantage of the possible momentum in Iraqi politics to create the space for long-term security,” Blair’s official spokesman told reporters. “The key to that is reconciliation ensuring the needs of Iraqis of different communities are properly taken into account and a lasting political accommodation is reached between them.”
But for now, Blair’s legacy remains tarnished by Iraq — despite helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland and the success of military intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.
What rankles is the perception that Blair took Britain to war over a lie — that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. A poll for the Observer newspaper this year, showed 58 percent of Britons believed Iraq was Blair’s biggest failure.
British forces initially seemed to have done well in Basra, a predominantly Shi’ite city in the south not plagued by the sectarian violence of Baghdad, nor prone to many strikes on foreign troops. But security in Basra has deteriorated in the past few years as rival Shi’ite militias battle for control of the vast oil wealth in Iraq’s richest city and the gateway to the Gulf.
Attacks on British forces have been rising and April 2007 was the deadliest month since the invasion. Britain is in the process of cutting its force in Basra to 5,500 from 7,000 and drawing back most troops to the international airport.
In a propaganda coup for militants, the army deemed it too dangerous to let Prince Harry, an army officer and third in line to the British throne, risk active service in southern Iraq.
Blair is adamant invading Iraq was the right thing to do. “We took a decision that we thought was very difficult. I thought then, and I think now, it was the right decision,” he said in Washington this week.