The two former leaders were also strong supporters of Bush's "war on terror", and gave their backing to controversial policies such as the so-called "rendition" of suspected terrorists and the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay..

"The president is honouring these leaders for their work to improve the lives of their citizens and for their efforts to promote democracy, human rights and peace abroad"

Dana Perino,
White House press secretary

After leaving office Blair took up the role of Middle East peace envoy for the "quartet" of Russia, the US, European Union and the UN.

Uribe, the other recipient of the medal, has been a leading US ally in Latin America and has frequently been praised by Bush for his support in the war on drugs.

Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, told reporters the three men had been "staunch allies" of the US, particularly in combating terrorism.

"The president is honouring these leaders for their work to improve the lives of their citizens and for their efforts to promote democracy, human rights and peace abroad," Perino told reporters.

The Iraq conflict has so far led to the deaths of more than 4,500 personnel among US-led forces, while estimates of the number of Iraqi casualties range between 100,000 and one million.

'Disaster'

A spokesman for Tony Blair said the presidential award reflected "the true courage of the men and women of the British armed forces who, through their service and sacrifice, have safeguarded freedom, democracy and human rights around the globe".

Former Iraq administrator Paul Bremer was given the medal in 2004 [GALLO/GETTY] 

But the Liberal Democrats, the UK's third largest party which opposed the Iraq war, criticised the award.

"Tony Blair should be spending next week helping to fix the mess in Gaza, not receiving an award for the biggest foreign policy disaster in recent history and his silence over Guantanamo Bay," Edward Davey, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, said.

"It is not surprising that this announcement has been left until after Tony Blair has left office and when George Bush is packing his bags."

Blair was awarded the US congressional gold medal in July 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, but has yet to collect it.

Former recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom include Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's former defence secretary and a chief architect of the Iraq war.

He was awarded the medal in 1977 after serving under former president Gerald Ford.

Bush's vice-president, Dick Cheney, also received the award in 1991.

In late 2004 Bush gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to three figures central to his early policy in Iraq - George Tenet, the former director of the CIA; Paul Bremer, the former head of the US administration in Iraq; and retired General Tommy Franks.