Page last updated at 23:34 GMT, Monday, 5 January 2009

Blair to get US Medal of Freedom

Tony Blair and George Bush
George Bush and Tony Blair were firm allies

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair will receive the highest civilian award in the US - the Presidential Medal of Freedom - next week.

In his last week in office, President Bush will award the medal to Mr Blair, former Australian PM John Howard and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

All three leaders had been "staunch allies" of the US, particularly against terrorism, said the White House.

The ceremony will take place at the White House on 13 January.

Mr Blair, who stepped down as UK prime minister in 2007, is now Middle East peace envoy for the Quartet - Russia, the US, the EU and UN.

A spokesman for Tony Blair said the award reflected "the true courage of the men and women of the British armed forces who, through their service and sacrifice, have safeguarded freedom, democracy and human rights around the globe."

Chief ally

Mr Blair was one of President Bush's closest international allies, particularly after the September 11 2001 attacks on the US and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Mr Howard was also a staunch ally and Australia was one of the first countries to commit troops to the war in Iraq. President Uribe is Washington's chief ally in Latin America and has been praised by President Bush for his support in the war against drugs.

It is not surprising that this announcement has been left until after Tony Blair has left office and when George Bush is packing his bags
Edward Davey
Liberal Democrats

At a press briefing earlier White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said: "The president is honouring these leaders for their work to improve the lives of their citizens and for their efforts to promote democracy, human rights and peace abroad. "

She added: "Their efforts to bring hope and freedom to people around the globe have made their nations, America and the world community a safer and more secure world. "

But the Liberal Democrats, the UK's third largest party which opposed the Iraq war, criticised the award.

Congressional gold

Foreign affairs spokesman Edward Davey said: "Tony Blair should be spending next week helping to fix the mess in Gaza, not receiving an award for the biggest foreign policy disaster in recent history and his silence over Guantanamo Bay."

"It is not surprising that this announcement has been left until after Tony Blair has left office and when George Bush is packing his bags. It is simply too controversial to be sold to voters."

It will be one of Mr Bush's final acts as US president before he hands over to president elect Barack Obama on 20 January.

The medal of freedom, awarded by the US President, is the highest civilian award in the US, alongside the congressional gold medal - awarded by Congress.

Mr Blair was awarded the congressional gold medal in July 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, but he has yet to collect it.

There was some speculation that unease over the Iraq war and Mr Blair's close friendship with Mr Bush made him reluctant to accept it while in office.

But each medal is individually designed and minted and it was reported it was taking some time to decide on the words and images.

The office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives told the Sunday Telegraph this week that Mr Blair was taking a keen interest in the medal's design, before it was specially made by the US Federal Mint.

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