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Sunday March 30, 04:21 PM

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Blair says war is to liberate Iraq

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tony Blair is seeking to persuade a restive Egyptian public that the war on Iraq is one of "liberation" in a column written in the leading daily Al-Ahram.

"Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people but with (Iraqi President) Saddam (Hussein), his sons and his barbarous regime which has brought misery and terror to their country," Blair wrote in the semi-official newspaper.

Graphic images of wounded or dead Iraqi civilians shown daily in Egyptian media have fuelled the anger of many in the country over the 11-day-old war by U.S. and British forces.

Egyptians have taken to the streets almost daily in anti-war protests, which at times have turned violent.

Al-Ahram, one of Egypt's most widely read newspapers, has printed interviews with U.S. officials in what analysts said were attempts by Egypt, a key U.S. ally, to persuade its people to blame Saddam rather than Washington for the war.

"This is a war not of conquest but of liberation. So we are doing all that is humanly possible to minimise civilian casualties and finish this campaign quickly," Blair wrote, according to an English text obtained from the British embassy.

"Military conflict, sadly, always leads to the loss of civilian lives. Mistakes may be made."

Iraq says nearly 600 civilians have been killed so far in the conflict.

Blair addressed another fear of many in the Arab world, that the U.S. and its allies covet Iraq's vast oil reserves, the world's second largest.

The Prime Minister said U.S. President George W. Bush, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and himself had pledged to put Iraq's oil in a U.N. trust fund to benefit the Iraqi people.

British forces would withdraw "as soon as practicable", Blair said, adding that he wanted to see a transitional civilian administration set up in Iraq as soon as possible after the war ended to rid the country of its alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Al-Ahram Editor Ibrahim Nafie wrote in reply to Blair that the newspaper disagreed with his logic, calling the war "unjust".

"Mr Blair did well when he recognised that the war has sparked strong feelings in the region," Nafie wrote. "But does he also realise that the war is destroying the fabric of the region and is threatening its pillars of stability, leaving deep scars in the psyche of the people that may never heal?"

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