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Iraq, Afghanistan decisive battlegrounds-UK's Blair

Written by: Staff

CANBERRA, Mar 27 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Tony Blair said today that Iraq and Afghanistan were decisive battlegrounds for the values the West believes in and warned of the risk of a U.S. retreat into isolationism.

In a speech to the Australian parliament, Blair made his case for the West to get involved in a broad range of issues, not just on the security front, in its struggle against Islamist militants.

U.S. allies Australia and Britain both have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Australian opposition leader Kim Beazley has said a future Labor government would withdraw Australian troops as soon as possible.

Blair, America's closest ally in Iraq, acknowledged that the war there had divided both Australia and Britain, but portrayed Iraq and Afghanistan as critical battlegrounds.

''Every reactionary element is lined up to fight us. They know if they lose, a message is sent out across the Muslim world that strikes at the heart of their ideology,'' Blair said.

''We must not hesitate in the face of a battle utterly decisive as to whether the values we believe in triumph or fail ... If the going is tough -- we tough it out. This is not a time to walk away.

This is a time for courage to see it through,'' said Blair, who received a standing ovation.

Outside parliament, about 100 anti-Iraq war protesters, holding placards saying ''B.liar'' and ''Troops out of Iraq'', blew whistles and trumpets to try to disrupt the visit, but they were kept well away.

PRAISE FROM HOWARD There was no repetition of the heckling that greeted U S President George W. Bush when he defended the invasion of Iraq in the Canberra parliament in October 2003.

In his introductory speech, Australian Prime Minister John Howard paid tribute to ''the strength of Tony Blair's conviction to the fight against terrorism''.

Beazley noted that he took a different position from Blair on Iraq ''but that doesn't diminish our regard for your leadership''.

Terry Hicks, whose son David is in U S custody in Guantanamo Bay, listened to Blair's speech in the public gallery.

Hicks, whose son is fighting a legal battle for British citizenship that might ease his release from Guantanamo, said he was not disappointed at Blair's refusal to meet him.

''Deep down, I didn't expect it anyway,'' Hicks told Reuters.

Hicks did meet an official from the British High Commission (embassy) in Canberra today to discuss his son's case.

Blair said that while the battle over values was most fierce in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western countries also had to get involved elsewhere and on a range of other issues.

''Wherever people live in fear, with no prospect of advance, we should be on their side ... whether in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea,'' he said, calling for an ''active foreign policy of engagement'' by a strong alliance, including the United States.

Calling the anti-American feeling seen in parts of world politics ''madness'', Blair said: ''The danger with America today is not that they are too much involved. The danger is they decide to pull up the drawbridge and disengage. We need them involved.'' After this week's Israeli general election, ''we must redouble our efforts to find a way to the only solution that works: a secure state of Israel and a viable, independent Palestinian state'', Blair said.

He called for action to combat conflict, famine and disease in Africa, a focus on the threat of climate change, and voiced support for a new world trade liberalisation agreement.

Reuters SHB DB1021

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