The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Gunmen steal Blair’s Iraq thunder

Baghdad, Dec. 17 (AP): British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a surprise visit to Iraq, said today that the task of the international community is to ensure that democracy is not defeated by terrorism.

Blair held talks with his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki in a visit designed to show support for fragile attempts to halt Iraq’s seemingly unstoppable bloodshed.

As Blair flew to the heavily fortified Green Zone aboard a military helicopter, news broke of the latest violent episode — a mass kidnapping carried out by gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms at the office of the Iraqi Red Crescent.

An official of the Iraqi aid group said the assailants abducted 20 to 30 employees and visitors, but left women behind.

Blair insisted Iraq has made progress since the 2003 US-led invasion. “The first time I arrived in this country there was no proper functioning democracy. Today there is,” Blair said at a joint news conference with Maliki.

“Our task — ours, the Americans, the whole of the coalition, the international community and the Iraqis themselves — is to make sure that the forces of terrorism don’t defeat the will of the people to have a democracy.”

The trip — Blair’s sixth to Iraq since the US-led 2003 invasion — was not announced in advance for security reasons. The British leader also met President Jalal Talabani and senior US officials.

Blair urged international support for Maliki’s seven-month-old Shia-dominated government, saying there was a “very strong obligation for all countries in the region to be supportive of the (Iraqi) Prime Minister and his government”.

“Most of all I reiterate our determination to stand four-square behind you and the Iraqi people in ensuring that your democracy is not destroyed by terrorism and sectarianism and those who wish to live in hatred rather than peace,” Blair said.

Blair is US President George W. Bush’s staunchest ally in the Iraq war, and Britain has some 7,000 troops in Iraq, most based around Basra in the south — the largest commitment of any country after the US. More than 120 British personnel have died in the country since the 2003 invasion.

British officials have said Britain expects to withdraw several thousand troops from Iraq next year. British and Iraqi troops in Basra are currently conducting “Operation Sinbad”, a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood sweep aimed at rooting out weapons and militants and launching reconstruction projects. Its completion in the new year will likely trigger an announcement that Britain is slashing its troop numbers.

Blair said the two leaders discussed the situation in Basra. “The operation there for the Iraqi forces to take control of security of the city is going well,” he said.

He gave no new details, however, of when troops might be withdrawn. “It has been our strategy from the beginning with Saddam removed to have a political process that is democratic, to have our forces in support of that democratic process, but as the Iraqi capability grows then to stand our forces down,” Blair said.

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