Blair tells troops of hopes for withdrawal

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Tony Blair is hoping a unity government will emerge from the Iraqi elections, allowing some British troops to be withdrawn next summer.

The Prime Minister, in Basra to deliver a pre-Christmas pep talk to British soldiers, held out the prospect of some troop reductions next year, but said it could only happen when the Iraqis increased their capability. "Most of us recognised that the army has built a quicker capability than the police," he said. "It is why it is very important we get a good strong unity government out of the Iraqi elections, so they can build up the army and police capability."

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, also flew in to Iraq, to Baghdad, from Afghanistan yesterday on a surprise visit to American troops. He was hot on the heels of Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, who on Sunday made his first trip to Iraq since the invasion in 2003.

Mr Blair said the troops he had spoken to in Basra had been "more upbeat about the Iraqi capability than I expected". But the likelihood that the elections will create a nation divided between Kurds, Sunnis and Shias will be seen as an obstacle to British and US hopes.

Mr Blair brushed aside talk of divisions after the elections, saying "they have always been there". But he admitted that "significant difficulties" still remained in spite of his optimism.

Mr Blair based some of his hopes on conversations with troops, who said the Iraqis appeared to be running the recent elections, unlike the elections in January. At a meeting with General George Casey, head of US forces, he was toldthat Iraqis will be leading 75 per cent of security operations by next summer.

The Prime Minister conceded that British troops could still be in Iraq a decade from now. He was asked about the prediction by Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British UN ambassador, that British troops may still be in Iraq in five years.

"It depends on the number,'' Mr Blair said. "We still have troops in Bosnia today, but it's not the same number as 10 years ago. I'm not saying we will have or we won't have. You have to judge that as you can.''

In a robust message to the troops, delivered from a tank loader, the Prime Minister said it was important to try to help Iraq to become a democracy. "The only way to do that is to provide security so the Iraqi forces build up and we can eventually draw down our capability," he said.

"If we manage to deal with terrorism here, we will deal a body blow to terrorism worldwide. You are right at the front line. I know how dangerous it is. Sometimes you have lost good colleagues and it is difficult in this situation, but one thing is for sure - when you look back at this time you will be very proud of what you have done here.''

Mr Blair flew by Hercules to a base in Basra, before flying on by helicopter to a logistics centre which has come under mortar fire recently. His visit was surrounded by tight security.

The troops said they were looking forward to welcoming Jim Davidson, the Conservative-supporting comedian, for a Christmas show.

Before leaving, Mr Blair told members of the Desert Rats that they were doing a vital job in the fight against terrorism. He repeatedly made it clear that he believed the Iraqi elections had turned the corner.

The Bush administration is expected to start reducing US forces after last week's parliamentary elections throughout Iraq. US troop levels were boosted before the poll and the Pentagon has said they will be brought down again to their previous level of 138,000.

Although Mr Rumsfeld hinted to reporters on the plane to Baghdad that the number of American soldiers would be further reduced, he said more cutbacks would depend on assessments by American and Iraqi commanders. He added: "What takes place within the next days and weeks, and possibly months, will produce a government that will be in for four years."

Mr Rumsfeld was met at the airport by Gen Casey. As with Mr Cheney, details of the visit were shrouded in secrecy - Mr Cheney's arrival was kept quiet to such an extent that even the Iraqi Prime Minister was not told.