Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday acknowledged he was surprised by the ferocity of the insurgency in Iraq, but defended Britain's commitment to remain in the country.
The issue is sure to cloud his governing Labor Party's annual conference, as recent violence thrusts Iraq back into the media spotlight and intensifies questions about when British troops will pull out.
"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that what is happening in Iraq now is crucial for our own security," Blair told the British Broadcasting Corp. as the weeklong conference opened in the southern coastal town of Brighton.
Blair was asked whether he had expected it to be so difficult to restore order in Iraq following the US-led invasion.
"No, I didn't expect quite the same sort of ferocity from every single element in the Middle East that came in and is doing their best to disrupt the political process," he said, referring to insurgents who have flooded into Iraq from neighboring countries such as Syria and Iran. "But I have absolutely no doubt as to what we should do. We should stick with it."
Britain has some 8,500 troops in Iraq, headquartered in the southern city of Basra. Blair's decision to back the US-led invasion caused his popularity to plummet and cost Labor dearly in national elections earlier this year. Although the party won a historic third term in office, its huge parliamentary lead was slashed, raising questions about Blair's leadership and undermining his authority.
Blair hopes to concentrate on domestic issues during the conference and to rally the party behind his program for reforming public services.
But images of angry Iraqis pelting British soldiers with Molotov cocktails and a diplomatic rift over the arrest and subsequent jail break of two British soldiers in Basra have reignited criticism of the way Blair has handled the conflict.
Blair insisted that the two soldiers who were arrested last week after allegedly shooting two Iraqi policemen would not be handed over to Iraqi authorities. The men, who were operating undercover, were rescued from prison by a British armored patrol which crashed through the jail walls.
"We will do whatever is necessary to protect our troops in any situation," Blair told the BBC.
Blair rejected calls from political opponents to set a timetable for withdrawing British troops from Iraq. His Defense Secretary John Reid said troop withdrawals depended on the ability of Iraqi forces to secure the country.
"When that condition has been met, we will hand over the lead in counterterrorism to the Iraqis," Reid told reporters.
Blair's ongoing plans to encourage greater private sector involvement in state-run public services have angered many Labor members.
Trade unionists, still a potent force in the party, have tabled several motions calling on the government to strengthen the rights of workers to strike, to halt market reforms of the health service and protect state pensions.
The motions, to be debated and voted on by delegates, cannot force Blair to alter policy, but defeats would prove embarrassing.
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