Blair flies into Iraq weapons row
BASRA, Iraq (CNN) -- UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has praised British troops in Iraq for their role in overthrowing Saddam Hussein amid renewed criticism over the coalition's failure to find weapons of mass destruction.
Blair, who made a brief stop in the southern Iraqi city of Basra Thursday as part of a two-day tour of the Gulf, is the first Western leader to visit the region since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime almost two months ago.
Britain, the U.S.' main ally in the war in Iraq, has about 40,000 troops in the Gulf country. Blair, who flew into Kuwait Wednesday, visited UK bases on his tour, including the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.
Blair is also facing a new debate over the coalition's main reason for waging war against Iraq, after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it was possible the reason Iraqi chemical and biological weapons have not been found was because Saddam's government had destroyed them before the conflict. (Full story)
On his flight Wednesday from London to Kuwait, Blair said: "I have said throughout and I just repeat to you, I have absolutely no doubt at all about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
"And rather than speculating, let's just wait until we get the full report back from our people who are interviewing the Iraqi scientists."
BBC Radio quoted an unnamed senior British official as saying a dossier compiled by the intelligence services had been altered on the request of Blair's Downing Street office to make it "sexier" by adding a statement that Saddam's weapons could be ready for use within 45 minutes.
Blair's comments were followed Thursday by a statement from UK Defence Minister Adam Ingram, who denied the accusations. (Related story)
However, he acknowledged that a claim made by Blair before the war -- that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes -- was based on a single source, and that the information "wasn't corroborated."
The UK leader, who arrived in Basra mid-morning Thursday from Kuwait aboard a military transport plane, was met by Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq.
Shortly after touching down, Blair met with local leaders and visited an elementary school, where children presented him with flowers.
Later, in an address to hundreds of British troops, Blair defended Britain's stance. "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 ... your courage and your dedication," he said.
He talked about the troops having fought "with great courage and balance."
Blair added: "But you didn't stop there. You then went on to try to make something of the country that you have liberated ... 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."
The prime minister's visit comes as U.S. Central Command said an American soldier had been killed, the fifth to die this week in hostile acts. (Full story)
Meanwhile, Blair warned Iran to release any al Qaeda operatives it was harboring.
The United States has said there is no doubt Iran is harboring members of the terrorist network and has increased security as a result.
Tehran denies the charges. (Full story)
Blair's tour of the Gulf began Wednesday when he arrived in Kuwait to thank the government for its support.
After visiting Basra and Umm Qasr Thursday, the prime minister returned to Kuwait before flying on to Warsaw, Poland.
From there, he will head to Russia for St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations and Evian, France, for the weekend's annual summit of the G8 industrialized nations.