Blair makes surprise visit to Iraq

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair flew to Baghdad today for talks with the Iraqi prime minister and president.

The Prime Minister's visit comes a day after the Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki issued an invitation to former members of Saddam Hussein's army to return to the military in a bid to quell sectarian violence.

And it follows the report earlier this month of former US secretary of state James Baker's Iraq Study Group, which described the situation in Iraq as "grave and deteriorating" and recommended the withdrawal of American combat troops in 2008.

Mr Blair is expected to discuss with Mr Maliki and President Jalal Talabani plans to hand over the last two British-controlled provinces in the south of Iraq to local authorities, which ministers hope con be completed by the spring.

Mr Blair flew to Baghdad from the Egyptian capital Cairo by RAF Hercules transport plane, before transferring to the heavily protected Green Zone by helicopter.

A news blackout was imposed on his visit until his arrival in the Green Zone.

Baghdad is the third stop on a Middle East tour which has already taken in Turkey and Egypt and which is intended to promote Mr Blair's strategy of resolving tensions in areas of conflict across the region.

On his sixth trip to Iraq since the 2003 war, aides said Mr Blair wanted to underline his support for Mr Maliki and his government and for the process of reconciliation in the country.

Some 300 members of moderate Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups are currently taking part in a conference aimed at brining a halt to the inter-communal violence which is claiming as many as 100 lives a day.

Mr Maliki kicked off the conference yesterday with his offer to Saddam's former soldiers to return to the army or, if they preferred, claim their military pensions.

The decision by US administrator Paul Bremer to disband the Sunni-dominated army in the wake of the toppling of Saddam's regime is blamed by many analysts for fuelling the insurgency.

Police in Baghdad yesterday said 53 bullet-riddled bodies had been found in the city over the past 24 hours.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said that the Prime Minister recognised that the situation on Iraq remained "very difficult" but that he believed that the way forward was through political means as well as through security.

"We recognise that for any government facing the challenges that there are in Iraq, they are huge, and the Prime Minister wants to show his support," said the spokesman.

Mr Blair will assure Mr Maliki and Mr Talabani that the views of the Iraqi government will be the primary consideration when determining the "security profile" of Britain's 7,000-strong deployment in Iraq, said the spokesman.

Mr Blair will also discuss the progress of Operation Sinbad, which has seen British and Iraqi troops go through the city of Basra neighbourhood by neighbourhood, clearing the insurgent hotspots in the hope of preparing the way for a resumption of Iraqi control early next year.