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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 March, 2003, 19:02 GMT
Blair warns of 'difficult days ahead'
Tony Blair
Blair says the UK has united behind British forces despite war opposition
The US-led coalition faces "difficult days ahead" but its war against Iraq is going according to plan, Tony Blair has told MPs.

In his first Commons statement since the start of the conflict, the prime minister told MPs that coalition forces had reached about 60 miles south of Baghdad, near Karbala.

He continued: "It is a little way from there that they will encounter the Medina division of the Republican Guard who are defending the route to Baghdad. This will be a crucial moment."

Prisoners are being paraded in defiance of all international conventions
Tony Blair

There were also still "pockets of resistance" in Basra, he said, especially from the security services fiercely loyal to Saddam Hussein.

As he delivered his progress report, Mr Blair said: "There are bound to be difficult days ahead, but the strategy and its timing are proceeding according to plan."

Victory for the US-led forces was "certain", he argued.

International Development Secretary Clare Short updated MPs on humanitarian aid plans for Iraq, saying there was a "growing will" to unite the international community behind such efforts.

Ultimate risk

On Thursday evening, around 60 anti-war protesters were gathered in Parliament Square.

They included a group from the Global Women's Strike, who are staging a daily demonstration this week on the slogan "Invest in caring not killing".

Earlier, the prime minister voiced the "heartfelt gratitude" of MPs to those troops who had been killed in the first four days of the campaign.

"They had the courage to take the ultimate risk in the service of their country," Mr Blair went on.

Three helicopters and an RAF Tornado have been lost in accidents, while two British soldiers are missing in Iraq.

UK forces have suffered their combat loss - a soldier killed in fighting near al-Zubayr, to the south of Basra.

It is not going to be over in a matter of days
Geoff Hoon

Pressed about the RAF Tornado shot down by an American Patriot missile, Mr Blair said: "We are looking urgently at what lessons we can learn from this incident."

Labour anti-war MP Alice Mahon was alarmed by the "terrible pictures" shown on al-Jazeera television of women and children killed and injured in Basra.

Mr Blair repeatedly stressed the coalition was doing everything "we humanly can" to avoid civilian casualties, which would happen in any war.

"It is the nature of today's instant, live reporting of war, that people see the pain and blood in vivid and shocking terms," he said.

Tony Blair

"But it is worth recalling the nature of what is not always apparent... an Iraqi nation, degraded and brutalised by decades of barbarous rule, a country that is potentially rich but whose people go hungry and whose children die needlessly from malnutrition and disease."

Opposition party leaders Iain Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy paid tribute to those British troops killed in the war, expressing sympathy to their families.

Conservative leader Mr Duncan Smith said: "This war was never going to be easy but the cause, I believe, is just."

The "big picture" showed rapid coalition advances despite the tragedies, he said.

'Winning the peace'

Liberal Democrat leader Mr Kennedy said "urgent thought" must be given to rebuilding Iraq, which should be managed by the United Nations to win the trust of the Iraqi people.

"If we are to win the peace, we must repair the damage not only to the infrastructure of Iraq but also to the international order ... the legitimacy of the UN," he said.

Mr Blair, and the two main party leaders, criticised the way American prisoners of war had been "paraded" on television - "in defiance" of the Geneva Convention.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri has denied such claims, accusing American forces in southern Iraq of maltreating civilians in rough physical searches.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said the detention of the terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay was now embarrassing the US.

America says those detainees are "unlawful combatants", not prisoners of war.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
"We want to make this a war not of conquest but of liberation"

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