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Blair to undergo procedure for heart 'flutter'

Expected to return to work on Monday

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that he will undergo a routine medical procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat and be back at work on Monday.

Blair said he would be hospitalized today for the treatment, which would be carried out under local anesthetic and would affect neither his job nor his plans to seek a third straight term as Britain's prime minister in next year's elections.

''It's a sort of fluttering, it doesn't stop you working and indeed I've been working the last couple of months since it happened," he said on British Broadcasting Corp. television.

He said his doctor assured him that it wasn't connected to anything more serious.

''I feel fine; I feel great. What happens every so often is that you get a flutter. . . . Apparently there is a procedure that is very easy to do and fixes it."

Blair made the statement hours after appearing onstage for the closing ceremony of the annual Labor Party convention in the seaside town of Brighton, where he won the backing of his party to keep British troops in Iraq, avoiding a humiliating defeat that would have undermined his premiership.

The heart condition affecting the 51-year-old prime minister was discovered a year ago when he was treated at a London hospital for a rapid, irregular heartbeat. An electric jolt was used to return his heart rhythm to normal. On that occasion, he was back at work a day later, defying doctors' orders to take 24 hours rest.

A month later, in November 2003, his aides were quick to play down another health scare when Blair called doctors to his official residence. The prime minister's office said he was suffering from a stomach ache that passed quickly with no treatment from the two doctors who examined him.

Cardiologist Punit Ramrakha explained in a detailed statement that ''the heart's rhythm is controlled by a network of nerves which lie within the heart's walls -- rather like the electric wire circuits in our homes. In some people, a sort of 'short circuit' can develop, producing a change in the heart's rhythm, either making the heart beat faster or making it beat irregularly."

Ramrakha said that drug treatment is often used to treat the condition but in recent years a procedure known as catheter ablation has also been used. A long, thin wire is inserted into large veins and moved via X-ray until the tip of the catheter is inside the heart chambers.

The announcement of the planned medical procedure came on the day his party's five-day convention ended, a gathering from which Blair emerged scratched but intact, looking ahead to national elections expected next year.

Still, the event did not go exactly as scripted for Blair, who shifted in his seat on the conference podium as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott launched a thinly veiled attack on President Bush, Blair's closest overseas ally.

''Whatever country it is, the people of the right are never concerned about the majority. They are only ever concerned about the few," Prescott said in his closing address. ''That's true on this side of the Atlantic or on the other side." He did not mention Bush by name.

Labor members voted overwhelmingly on a show of hands to support the government's position that its troops were in Iraq with the backing of the United Nations and the agreement of the interim Iraqi government.

More than 85 percent of delegates voted to overturn a grass-roots motion that demanded Blair set an early date for withdrawing British troops. A defeat would not have altered government policy but would have been an embarrassing blow to Blair, who has battled to unite his party and focus on winning a third term.

''I know that there are those in this party and in our country that opposed our intervention in Iraq. I respect their opinion," Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told the conference in a closing day debate on Britain's role in Iraq. ''But whatever your views, we must now work to defeat terrorism. Now is the time to unite, to help the Iraqi people rebuild their country, their economy, their way of life."

The conference was intended as a springboard for national elections, widely expected in May. Ministers announced a plethora of new policies they hope will appeal to the electorate: an increase in affordable child care provision; longer maternity leave; and more community officers to support police.

But, like last year, the conference was overshadowed by the war. Two British soldiers died in an ambush on their convoy near the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, bringing the total killed in Iraq to 67. British contractor Kenneth Bigley, held hostage by Islamic militants in Iraq, appeared Wednesday in video footage released to the Arab news network Al-Jazeera, begging from inside his cage for Blair to intervene to save his life.

Blair said his government was willing to talk to Bigley's kidnappers, but officials stressed they would not pay a ransom or meet any political demands to secure his release.

''Of course, if they make contact, we are ready to talk to them. That is not the same as negotiating," Blair told ITV News television. ''They have made no contact with us and, frankly, I think it is unlikely that they will."

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