Blair insists June deadline for handover of power will stand

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Tony Blair pledged yesterday that Britain would not "run away or hide in fright" despite the rising tide of violence against coalition forces in Iraq, as it emerged that he will hold talks next week with George Bush.

Tony Blair pledged yesterday that Britain would not "run away or hide in fright" despite the rising tide of violence against coalition forces in Iraq, as it emerged that he will hold talks next week with George Bush.

Speaking after a meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, in Downing Street, he insisted the 30 June deadline for the handover of power to an interim Iraqi government would not be postponed. The violence led by supporters of the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr would not derail efforts to create a modern democratic state in Iraq, he said.

The issue is likely to be prominent when Mr Blair flies to Washington next week for talks in Washington with President Bush. Mirroring Mr Bush's tough stand, Mr Blair said: "Our response should not be to run away in fright or hide away or think we have done something wrong. Our reaction must be to hold firm. They are trying to stop what is right from happening. We do not get put off by this. We redouble our efforts."

He accused opponents of the Iraqi interim government of subverting moves towards democracy. "Big challenges remain in Iraq, of that there is no doubt," he said.

"Iraq has been a deeply damaged country and going from totalitarianism to freedom was always bound to be difficult. A few groups are abusing those freedoms in Iraq. They are supporters of Saddam Hussein, there are some outside terrorists and then ... there are people who want to subvert the path of Iraq towards a proper democracy." Mr Blair insisted that Sadr "doesn't represent any of the values of the new Iraq. He represents a small band of extremists."

Mr Zebari suggested that violence could increase in the run-up to the June deadline, and admitted that the Iraqi authorities had little sense of responsibility for the situation while the US-led occupation continued.

He called for up to 25,000 coalition troops to be drafted into Iraq to help stabilise the situation, but insisted that the country was not descending into civil war. Mr Zebari said: "We are going through a challenging time. I believe as we get closer to the June 30 deadline the challenges will increase. People doing this have their own political agenda. We want to go to that date and have power transferred to a new Iraqi government."

Mr Zebari said there were now 105,000 troops in Iraq compared to the 130,000 during the war. "That gap maybe should be filled again," he said, but added: "The recent disturbances do not mean Iraq is descending into chaos or there are serious, serious crises or civil war as some people predicted."

He insisted that Sadr was not a fully qualified cleric and did not represent mainstream Shia opinion in Iraq, which wanted a full part in the new Iraqi government. He said: "They feel they have the opportunity and they should not squander it".

Mr Zebari insisted that his government was ready to take the reins of power in Iraq, but warned that "nobody is feeling responsible" for security while the US-led coalition remained in charge of the country.

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