|LONDON (AFP) — British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a New Year's address to the nation, called Wednesday for perseverance in Iraq in the hope that it will become a beacon for democracy in the Middle East.
"The recent capture of Saddam Hussein was a vital milestone on the road to a stable Iraq," said Blair, who joined US President George W. Bush in the March 20 invasion that led to the former Iraqi ruler's downfall.
"Meanwhile, constant progress on essential services like electricity and water are sure signs that life in Iraq is slowly going in the right direction," he said.
"In 2004 we must stick to the task," he said. "There will be no better signal for the Middle East or the world than a democratic, prosperous Iraq replacing a tyrannical, brutal dictatorship."
Blair, who has been spending his Christmas holidays in Egypt, made his remarks ahead of one of his toughest months in Downing Street, with a judicial inquiry due to report in mid-January on the suicide of David Kelly.
Kelly, a ministry of defence expert on weapons of mass destruction, took his life in July after he was exposed as the source of a BBC report — denied by Blair's government — that Downing Street had "sexed up" intelligence on Iraq in the run-up to the war.
Also in January, Blair faces the biggest-ever rebellion within his Labour party since the Iraq war over higher university tuition fees — a reform on which he is staking his political future.
"Britain is poised to become one of the most successful 21st century nations," the prime minister said.
"And I am as committed, as optimistic, as determined today as I was in 1997 (when the Labour government was first elected) to see through the reforms that will make it happen," he said.
"This is no time to turn the clock back, no time to coast, no time to falter with the job only half done," he said.
"I relish the challenge ahead and I am confident that in partnership — government and people — we can take the next important steps forward in 2004."
On other foreign issues, Blair welcomed Libya's decision to abandon its pursuit of a weapons of mass destruction capability.
"Libya's courageous decision to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction will also make the world a safer place," he said.
"And it shows that the problems of these weapons, can, with determination and good faith, be tackled through discussion and engagement."
On the economy, Blair said: "Britain is now seeing its seventh year of growth under this government. We have seen seven years of low interest rates, of low inflation, of falling unemployment.
"We have not gone into recession like many of our competitors and now we are well placed to grow faster in the years ahead."
"None of this has happened by accident but because of the hard choices that made it possible," such as tougher fiscal rule, two years of tight spending, and granting independence to the Bank of England to set interest rates.
"This stability should never be taken for granted," he said. "Boom and bust, economic uncertainty, house repossessions, business bankruptcies used to be the British disease. We have cured that disease."
He predicted: "In 2004 we will do all we can to sustain and build on our economic strength."
Thursday, January 1, 2004