BRIGHTON, England – Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) said Tuesday that Britain would not retreat or withdraw from Iraq, saying that to do so would hand the country over to "the mercy of religious fanatics or relics" of Saddam Hussein.
Blair told the Labour Party's (search) annual conference that "81/2 million Iraqis showed which future they wanted when they came out and voted in January's elections."
Disquiet about Britain's involvement in Iraq has grown since Sept. 19, when rioters in the southern city of Basra (search) attacked British troops with Molotov cocktails when the soldiers tried to rescue two comrades who had been detained by Iraqi police.
"I know there are people, good people, who disagreed with the decision to remove Saddam by force," Blair said.
"Yes, several hundred people stoned British troops in Basra. Yes, several thousand run the terrorist insurgency around Baghdad. And yes, as a result of the fighting, innocent people tragically died," he added.
"The way to stop the innocent dying is not to retreat, to withdraw, to hand these people over to the mercy of religious fanatics or relics of Saddam, but to stand up for their right to decide their government in the same democratic way the British people do."
Blair also defended his partnership with President Bush (search), saying "Britain should remain the strongest ally of the United States."
"I never doubted after Sept. 11 that our place was alongside America and I don't doubt it now. And for a very simple reason," he said. "Terrorism struck most dramatically in New York but it was aimed then and is aimed now at us all, at our way of life."
He said terrorism "is at its fiercest in Iraq.
"It has allied itself there with every reactionary element in the Middle East. Their aim: to wreck this December's first ever direct election for the government of Iraq," he said.