MIDDLE EAST Prime minister pays visit to Iraq



A U.S. soldier was killed today, becoming the ninth American to die in Iraq this week.
COMBINED DISPATCHES
BASRA, Iraq -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair became the first foreign leader today to visit postwar Iraq, telling his nation's troops that their invasion was professional and their methods of keeping the peace have been "remarkable."
Blair arrived in this southern city in a Royal Air Force Hercules C-130 transport plane after flying from Kuwait. He was met at Basra airport by Gen. Peter Wall, commander of the British 1st Division.
The prime minister acknowledged the divisions in Britain about the war's wisdom but said there was no difference of opinion about the forces themselves.
"This wasn't the pretend stuff that happens in films. It was real war, with real bloodshed and real casualties," Blair told about 400 soldiers, speaking at one of Saddam Hussein's former presidential palaces.
"And there were people you will have known that aren't going back home. And we grieve for them, and we pay respect to them for everything they did and the sacrifice that they made," he said.
Although numerous British troops have pulled out of Iraq since the end of combat six weeks ago, about 20,000 soldiers still remain based in the south of the country.
The coalition that unseated Saddam was led by the United States, with Britain as its top ally -- a decision that caused Blair serious political problems at home.
Meetings
Blair, wearing a white open-necked shirt and dark blue chino trousers, chatted briefly to Wall and other commanders before going in for an hourlong private briefing in the VIP suite once reserved for Saddam and his cronies, the British agency Press Association reported.
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.
He said the invasion of Iraq has reconfigured the region and created an environment where real progress is possible -- from the Israeli-Palestinian problem to relations with Syria and Iran.
"The liberation from Saddam is one huge thing, a momentous and a mighty act for the people of Iraq, which you did, and of which you can be proud," he said.
"But something else is happening right throughout the whole of this region," he added. "You know I think that this area of the world has been the source of probably more instability, more terrorism, more difficulty in managing world affairs than any other region in the world."
Bremer and Blair discussed Iraq's economic problems, security issues -- particularly with Baath Party holdouts -- and concerns about Iranian-influenced activity linked to Iraq's Shiite Muslim activists, Sawers said.
"There is a security problem here, [especially] in Baghdad, where the Baathist regime was at its strongest and where crime has been most difficult to get on top of," Sawers said.
But, quoting Bremer, Sawers said local Shiite clerics were "hugely grateful" for the overthrow of Saddam.
Soldier killed
Elsewhere in Iraq, a U.S. soldier was killed by hostile fire today while traveling on a main supply route in Iraq, a military statement said.
The brief statement released by the U.S. Central Command said the soldier was evacuated to 21st Combat Support Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
It gave no further details or the soldier's name.
The announcement comes after a sharp escalation in clashes between Iraqis and U.S. troops in recent days.
The latest death brings to nine the number of American soldiers who have died around the country this week. Nearly two dozen others have been wounded.
Charges dropped
In the United States, military officials dropped some of the charges against a soldier accused of a grenade attack on his comrades in Kuwait during the war in Iraq.
The charges against Sgt. Hasan K. Akbar had included two counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. The Army said Wednesday that Akbar now faces just three counts of attempted murder along with the premeditated murder counts.
Two soldiers were killed and 14 injured in the March 23 attack on members of the 101st Airborne Division. Military authorities have not outlined a motive.
Officials said some of the minor charges were eliminated so that prosecutors could focus on the major charges.
Weapons of mass destruction
Meanwhile, senior Bush administration officials have begun to lay the groundwork for the possibility that it may take a long time, if ever, before they are able to prove the expansive case they made to justify the war.
In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, administration officials charged that Saddam had spent billions of dollars on developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and was poised to hand them over to international terrorists or fire them at U.S. troops or neighboring countries.
Nearly two months after the fall of Baghdad, officials continue to express confidence the weapons will be found.
"No one should expect this kind of deception effort to get penetrated overnight," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said in an interview Wednesday. Wolfowitz said the administration's prewar emphasis on the existence of weapons of mass destruction stemmed from "one of the most widely-shared intelligence assessments that I know of. ... We're a long way" from exhausting the search.
But in speeches and comments in recent weeks, senior administration officials have begun to lower expectations that weapons will be found anytime soon, if at all, and suggested they may have been destroyed, buried or spirited out of the country.
The U.S. invasion force moved so quickly into Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday in response to questions at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Iraqis "didn't have time to ... use chemical weapons. ... They may have had time to destroy them, and I don't know the answer."
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