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'One of the finest' 100th soldier killed in Iraq met PM before Christmas.

Byline: By CAROLINE GAMMEL

CORPORAL Gordon Pritchard, the 100th member of the British armed forces to die since the Iraq conflict began, was photographed with Tony Blair just six weeks before being killed by a roadside bomb, it emerged yesterday.

In the pictures, 31-year-old Cpl Pritchard - described yesterday as "one of the finest" -was smiling as he stood alongside the Prime Minister during his last visit to the troubled country.

The soldier, from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, was among those helping rebuild the port town of Um Qasr in the southern province of Basra.

On Tuesday he was part of a three-Land Rover convoy which was hit by an explosion, killing the married father-of-three instantly and injuring three others, one seriously.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman would not say if Mr Blair had made contact with the dead soldier's family, insisting it was a "private" matter.

But he did reveal that Mr Blair had spoken to frontline soldiers in Basra about the increasing capacity of the Iraqi troops and British enthusiasm for working with them.

He said the Prime Minister had visited wounded soldiers both in Iraq and in this country privately.

Mr Blair was photographed standing next to Cpl Pritchard in front of a tank at Shaibah logistics base.

He was one of a number of servicemen and women who chatted to Mr Blair only days before Christmas.

Yesterday, in a glowing tribute, the soldier was described by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ben Edwards, as one of his finest junior non-commissioned officers who made a "lasting" contribution to the future of Iraq.

He had "the intelligence, professionalism, compassion and humour" to make it to the highest levels, he said.

Cpl Pritchard, born the son of a soldier in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, had known the Army all his life.

He joined, aged 17, in 1992 and served in Kosovo before training in Canada.

He was married to Julie-Anne and they had three children -Stacey, Harrison and Summer.

His parents, Jenny and Bill, from Edinburgh, said their son was the epitome of a professional soldier.

"He was a well-trained, well-motivated soldier serving in a regiment that he was extremely proud of, as did his father and elder brother," they said in a statement.

"He was a loving son and a very proud family man and he will be deeply missed by us all."

The 100th fatality in Iraq since the start of hostilities almost three years ago sparked calls for troops to be withdrawn.

The Stop the War Coalition organised vigils across the country yesterday to read out the names of the dead and light candles.

At some gatherings, shoes were gathered to represent those who had died.

As the vigils were held, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw hinted that some British troops could be withdrawn from Iraq before the end of the year.

He said he expected "good news" from talks with Iraqi officials on handing over control of some regions to home-grown forces.

welshnews@dailypost.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

Tony Blair chats with Cpl Gordon Pritchard at his base on December 22 Picture: KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 2, 2006
Words:520
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