As British Prime Minister Tony Blair took a victory lap in southern Iraq on Thursday, the top U.S. military commander in Baghdad declared that the war is still not over in many parts of the country.
Blair, the key ally of President Bush in toppling Saddam Hussein, visited a Basra school rebuilt with British funds and was briefed on security issues by the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq. Students of the school shouted Blair’s name as he declared them “the future for this country.”
The scene contrasted starkly with the series of attacks on U.S. troops in and around Baghdad, where four consecutive days of Iraqi violence have left five U.S. soldiers dead and 15 others wounded.
Early Thursday, an American soldier was killed by hostile fire while traveling in a convoy north of Baghdad. The shooting followed ambushes earlier this week in Hadithah, Baghdad and Fallouja.
Twenty American soldiers have died in fighting and accidents in Iraq since Bush declared heavy combat over on May 1. During the three-week period of major fighting through the fall of Baghdad, about 150 U.S. troops were killed by enemy forces, accidents and “friendly fire.”
The recent series of attacks has led to increased concerns about pockets of locally organized resistance and a simmering public resentment against occupation forces.
Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, speaking in Baghdad on Thursday, characterized this week’s fighting as a continuation of the war against Hussein’s Baathist regime.
“These are not criminal activities, they are combat activities,” McKiernan said during a news conference. “What we’re seeing is contact between coalition forces and those elements that are trying to hold on to any power they had under the previous regime.”
“We will apply all the necessary combat power to make sure that this opposition is removed,” he added.
In recent days, U.S. forces have been involved in “a number of combat actions” along a 60-mile belt of conservative Sunni Muslim areas west of the capital, running from Fallouja in the east to the town of Hit in the west, McKiernan said.
He described the attacks as locally organized but shed little additional light on what might have triggered a large-scale riot Wednesday in Hit, which local residents said came after two days of house-to-house searches by American forces. McKiernan said he was checking into reports of the violence.
McKiernan said that a U.S. military helicopter was damaged during operations in the area Wednesday, but not from ground fire. Residents of Hit on Wednesday said a helicopter came down in a village just west of the town -- an assertion initially rejected by the Pentagon.
A letter by the “General Command of the Iraqi Armed Resistance and Liberation Forces” said an ambush that killed two U.S. soldiers in Fallouja this week had been carried out by “special forces, al-Faruk Brigades and members of the Baath Party.”
“There is a security problem ... in Baghdad, where the Baathist regime was at its strongest and where crime has been most difficult to get on top of,” said John Sawers, the chief British envoy to Iraq.
Against the backdrop of resistance, McKiernan confirmed that the departure from Iraq of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division had been delayed to help deal with the mounting security challenge.
Some units of the division have been in the Persian Gulf region since September, and many of the division’s soldiers had expected to pull back to Kuwait next weekend on what would have been the first step on their return to the United States.
There are about 150,000 American troops in Iraq, providing security and police services in cities and other key sites. The U.S. military is also overseeing services in several cities where civilian postwar reconstruction efforts have been barely visible. In the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, for example, U.S. military commanders have brokered conventions in which interim city councils and mayors have been chosen.
In Basra, Blair appeared amid heavy security, many miles from troubled central Iraq. Far less volatile than Baghdad, where lawlessness and a paucity of public services continue to dog the U.S.-led interim authority, Basra is a comparatively safe southern haven populated mostly by Shiite Muslims, whose region was neglected and often punished by the Hussein regime.
At the rebuilt Basra elementary school, Blair was greeted by about 300 enthusiastic students and city residents.
“Tony Blair is a guy who really changed life by changing the regime. We saw that with our own eyes,” said Adnan Kassam, a middle-aged Basra resident among the crowd that greeted Blair as he entered the school.
Inside, a small boy kissed the prime minister and a young girl crooned “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to him in English.
As Blair accepted the warm southern welcome, the continued attacks against U.S. troops in the north illustrated a broad divide between such southern cities as Basra, where services have largely been restored and resistance to the Hussein regime was always strong, and central Iraq, where electricity and civil order are uncertain and unemployed civil servants and soldiers call for the exodus of the occupying force.
Fits and Starts
Even in Basra, however, reconstruction efforts have not been without problems. Last week, British troops disbanded the city council that the British military had helped establish. The council, which was headed by a leader many residents said had close ties to the Hussein regime, is to be replaced by a panel of appointed civic leaders, the British said.
Sawers, the top British envoy, said Blair was briefed on the security situation in Iraq and other issues by L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq.
“Bremer ... briefed the prime minister on the problems he’s facing on the economy, on the issues he’s facing on the security side in dealing with remaining remnants of the Baathists, dealing with crime and the growing concern about Shia Islamism, which is clearly being supported by Iranian influence,” Sawers said.
Lauding the Troops
The main purpose of the trip was to thank British troops for their efforts in the war. Blair was greeted at the airport in Basra by Gen. Peter Wall, commander of the British 1st Division and visited the headquarters of the 7th Armored Brigade, bivouacked in a presidential palace.
Blair thanked the troops, among the 20,000 British soldiers based in southern Iraq, saying they should be proud “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 declared the victory over Hussein “one of the most defining moments of this century.”
Blair spoke of continued criticism over the war at home. “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.
That criticism intensified as Robin Cook, who resigned as Blair’s foreign secretary in protest against the war in Iraq, demanded a government investigation after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week that Iraqi forces might have destroyed the nation’s weapons of mass destruction before the war began.
“If Donald Rumsfeld is now admitting the weapons are not there, the truth is the weapons probably haven’t been there for quite a long time,” Cook told the BBC.
Blair left by Chinook helicopter for Umm al Qasr, Iraq’s only seaport, before resuming a diplomatic tour taking him to Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Evian, France.
Hendren reported from Basra and Marshall from Baghdad.