Blair in surprise Baghdad visit

Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into Baghdad today for a surprise visit to mark the formation of a new Iraqi government pledged to defeat terrorism.

Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into Baghdad today for a surprise visit to mark the formation of a new Iraqi government pledged to defeat terrorism.

Mr Blair's visit to the capital's heavily-fortified Green Zone from Kuwait had been shrouded in secrecy, as deadly violence continued to provide the grim backdrop to the new administration - only agreed after months of bitter wrangling between rival factions.

The premier will meet his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri Maliki, for talks and the two leaders are expected to hold a joint press conference later today.

On Saturday, Mr Blair hailed the formation of the government as a "huge step forward" after Mr Maliki's ministers were sworn in before a parliament elected by more than 12 million Iraqi voters.

The British Prime Minister flew into the Green Zone by helicopter for his second visit to Iraq's capital city early this morning.

The Prime Minister was determined to show his support for the new national unity government, despite the obvious security risks.

His hair-raising helicopter ride into Baghdad followed days of bloodshed surrounding the formation of the new administration, with dozens killed and injured in a string of suicide and roadside bombs and drive-by shootings.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "Iraq now has a democratically-elected government which is there for a four-year term, is made up of all the different groupings within Iraq and it is very much dictating the agenda.

"We are here to show our support for that democratic government and to help it take charge of its own destiny."

A senior British official travelling with Mr Blair said the withdrawal of the present multi-national force should be accomplished within four years, with a handover to civilian control in several provinces during the summer.

He stressed that was not a timetable for troop withdrawal, and was not necessarily heralding the swift repatriation of large numbers of British troops.

The senior British official said he hoped that at least one of the four of Iraq's 18 provinces currently controlled by UK forces would be able to transfer to civilian control soon.

The official said: "Our message is one of support for a government which has now taken over the baton and will be running things for itself over a four-year period.

"Sovereignty is not new, independence is not new, but this length of time is new and this government is going to take the country to a position where the multi-national force (MNF) can withdraw during its time in office."

He added: "During that four years, the present role and structure of the MNF will change and come to an end."

He said there might be a continuing role in training and development of Iraqi forces "but the scale of the forces that you have today will change over that four-year period".

He went on: "The UK has four provinces. I would certainly hope that at least one of our provinces would be able to transfer during the course of the summer."

That would almost certainly be al Muthana or Maysan, the two most stable of the provinces - the others being Basra and Dhi Kar.

But the official repeatedly made clear that handing over to civilian control would not lead to an immediate repatriation of British troops this summer.

Mr Blair will also meet Iraqi president Jalal Talibani and members of the newly sworn-in Iraqi cabinet today, as well as the US ambassador to Iraq and the senior UK commander in the country, General Sir Rob Fry.

Mr Blair wants to offer technical help in setting up the fledgling administration and his visit also follows a strong message of support for Premier Maliki from US president George Bush.