BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Britain’s Tony Blair, on his last visit to Iraq as prime minister, said on Saturday he had no regrets about his part in the U.S.-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein.
On a farewell trip to a country whose future may define his legacy after a decade in power, Blair met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani and discussed the situation in Iraq, which is beset by sectarian violence.
“I have no regrets about removing Saddam, no,” Blair told a joint news conference with Maliki and Talabani after their talks about how to bring about greater political reconciliation.
“The future of Iraq should be determined by Iraqis in accordance with their wishes and it is important that all the neighboring countries understand and respect that,” he said.
Ambassadors from Iran and the United States will meet in Iraq on May 28 to discuss security in the country, a rare meeting between the bitter rivals. Blair said there was strategic benefit in a stable Iraq for all involved.
“We know it is important to work with Iran but Iran has to understand it cannot support terrorism and want to work with us at the same time,” he said.
Blair later flew to the southern city of Basra and said the world needed a stable Middle East. “If we don’t sort this region out, then there is, in my view, a very troubled and difficult future for the world ahead of us,” he said.
Two rounds of either mortars or rockets landed while he chatted with some of the thousands of British troops stationed in Basra, witnesses said.
Earlier a mortar round had also landed in the heavily fortified Green Zone as Blair arrived in Baghdad, part of a pattern of daily bombardments.
Blair’s decision to join U.S. President George W. Bush and send British troops to topple Saddam in 2003 despite huge opposition at home was the defining moment of his rule.
Speaking on the BBC, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said Blair could have exerted greater influence over Bush and his government had shown “subservience” towards the White House over Iraq and other foreign policy areas.
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 stabilizing Iraq is almost impossible.
The U.S. military said that five soldiers had been killed in four separate incidents on Friday and Saturday.
In an interview conducted on Friday, the U.S. military’s top commander in Iraq said he believed at least two of three missing U.S. soldiers abducted a week ago were still alive.
Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops have been scouring farmlands through an area south of Baghdad known as the “triangle of death” since an ambush in which four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator were also killed.
“As of this (Friday) morning, we thought there were at least two that were probably still alive,” General David Petraeus told the U.S. military newspaper Army Times.
“At one point in time there was a sense that one of them might have died, but again we just don’t know,” he said.
Maliki’s government is under pressure to meet political benchmarks, which include a revenue-sharing oil law, a law that would allow former members of Saddam’s party to hold public office and constitutional reform, to speed up reconciliation.
“Iraq cannot go back to the past and the political process moves forward ... the truth must be imposed,” Maliki said.
Blair’s legacy remains tarnished by Iraq — despite successes in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Sierra Leone — particularly the perception that he took Britain to war over a lie that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
British forces initially seemed to have done well in Basra, a relatively peaceful and predominantly Shi’ite southern city.
But security there has deteriorated as rival Shi’ite militias battle for control of the vast oil wealth in Iraq’s richest city and gateway to the Gulf.
Additional reporting by Paul Tait in Baghdad