Tony Blair arrives in southern Iraq on surprise visit

Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in southern Iraq Thursday on a surprise visit to British troops. The pre-Christmas visit, Blair's fourth trip to Iraq since the 2003 invasion, was intended partly to thank the 8,000 British troops, who will be away from home over the holiday period. At home, Blair has been dogged by questions about how long they will remain in Iraq. Blair flew into Basra from Kuwait aboard a British military plane on a trip not disclosed in advance for security reasons.

Blair was due to be briefed by senior British and American officials, including U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad; the senior British officer in Iraq, Gen. Nick Houghton; and Gen. George Casey, the U.S. military commander in the country, on Iraq's still-parlous security situation and the outcome of last week's national election. The administrations in Washington and London, facing persistent domestic opposition to the war, hope the ballot will produce a stable government and pave the way for the withdrawal of some American and British troops.

Preliminary results show a Shiite religious bloc leading at the expense of secular and Sunni alliances. But Blair's official spokesman, briefing reporters Wednesday aboard the prime minister's chartered jet, said the results were not a disappointment.

He said voter turnout, expected to be about 70 percent, was above that for Iraq's constitutional referendum and an earlier election to form an interim government. Speaking on customary condition of anonymity, the spokesman said there were still "lots of problems ... But democracy is established. You've had three elections, with turnout going up. You're seeing not just increased turnout, but more and more involvement in the political process by the Sunnis."

"There's a lot more work to do," he added. "But the trend, the dynamic, is all in the right direction."

Britain's military contingent in Iraq, based around the southern city of Basra, is the second-largest after that of the United States. Ninety-eight British troops have died in Iraq since the invasion. Blair's popularity has been battered by his decision to join the U.S.-led invasion, and he has faced allegations that his administration exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction to bolster the case for war.

Blair's Labour Party was re-elected to a historic third term in May, but its House of Commons majority was slashed, partly as a result of opposition to the war. Blair has repeatedly said British troops will not leave Iraq until they are asked to go by the Iraqi government. Recently, however, Blair and senior ministers have spoken of reducing the number of British troops as early as March, after a permanent Iraqi government is installed following last week's election. Blair said last month that it was "entirely reasonable to talk about the possibility of withdrawal of troops next year."

Blair's spokesmen said British troops would only leave after a request by a democratically elected Iraqi government and after a process of "Iraqiization" of the security forces. "Let's talk less timetable, and more process," he said.

Last week the commander of Britain's 7th Armoured Brigade in Iraq, Brig. Patrick Marriott, said there should be no significant reduction in the number of British troops until after provincial elections in the south next spring, because of the risk of factional fighting between rival Shiite groups.

In the months after the 2003 invasion, British troops enjoyed relative peace in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq compared to the restive Sunni regions further north. British commanders pointed out with pride that soldiers patrolled in berets, rather than helmets, reports the AP. I.L.

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