Blair visits Baghdad for election talks

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Tony Blair flew into in Baghdad today for talks with his Iraqi counterpart Iyad Allawi.

Tony Blair flew into in Baghdad today for talks with his Iraqi counterpart Iyad Allawi.

Mr Blair's helicopter flight into the Iraqi capital's secure Green Zone followed a news blackout requested by Downing Street.

The Prime Minister flew to the Jordanian capital Amman last night amid conditions of secrecy.

Despite heavy security, the Green Zone has been the scene of numerous deadly attacks by insurgents.

This morning Mr Blair transferred by RAF Hercules on a 90-minute stomach-churning flight which zig-zagged its way into Baghdad International Airport.

Mr Blair then boarded an RAF Puma helicopter, escorted by a fleet of US Black Hawk helicopters, to be whisked to the Washington helipad in the Green Zone.

The Premier was accompanied on his flight by Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Mike Walker and his chief foreign policy adviser Sir Nigel Sheinwald.

Mr Blair went straight into talks at the US embassy with the American commander of the multi-national force General George Casey and his British deputy General John Kiszely.

The Prime Minister, accompanied by police and special forces bodyguards, went on to visit the Iraqi electoral commission, meeting its chairman Abdul Hussein Hindawi.

Mr Blair told commission workers - who lost three colleagues in an assassination on Sunday - that he did not underestimate "the difficulties and dangers" that they faced.

The premier's spokesman said the Prime Minister was keen to stress "we need to now push forward to the election".

At the US Embassy talks, said Mr Blair's spokesman, Gen Casey thanked the premier specifically for the role played recently by the Black Watch in supporting the US assault on Fallujah, saying they had made "a key contribution at a key time".

As Mr Blair's convoy drove into the Iraqi Prime Minister's compound there was a crackle of small arms fire in the background - an everyday occurrence in Baghdad.

Mr Blair is the first head of government to visit central Baghdad since the handover of power to Mr Allawi's interim government.

It was Mr Blair's most high-risk visit yet - both in terms of his personal security and the potential political backlash.

The two prime ministers were hosting a joint news conference to stress their determination that elections should proceed in time in January.

Mr Blair's trip, his first to Baghdad and third to Iraq, comes at a difficult time for the US-led coalition in Iraq, with fears that the continuing violence could derail the elections scheduled for January 30.

Britain and America are determined that voting should go ahead as planned.

The coalition allies see successful elections as a major step towards returning power to the Iraqis, enabling them to start winding down their own presence in the country.

Mr Blair called on the whole international community to support the elections planned in Iraq for January, which he said he "very much" hoped would be inclusive of all Iraqis.

Regardless of differences over last year's war, the international community should recognise that "this is now about the future", said Mr Blair, standing alongside Mr Allawi at a press conference.

Iraq was engaged in "a battle between democracy and terror", said Mr Blair.

Mr Blair said: "Whatever people's feelings or beliefs about the removal of Saddam Hussein and the wisdom of that, there surely is only one side to be on in what is now very clearly a battle between democracy and terror.

"On one side, you have people who desperately want the democratic process to work and want the same democratic freedoms the rest of the world enjoy, and on the other people who are killing and intimidating and trying to destroy a better future for Iraq."

Mr Blair said he had met staff of the Iraqi Electoral Commission, who are preparing for next month's poll, and told them that they were "the heroes of the new Iraq that is being created".

"Here are people who are risking their lives every day in order to ensure that the people of Iraq get to decide their own destiny democratically," he said.

He had also met United Nations staff who were "very, very strongly committed to making sure the elections are held", said Mr Blair.

"Their belief is that people in Iraq actually do want to participate in this," he said.

"I hope very much it goes ahead in an inclusive basis. I'm sure it can do and should do."

Mr Blair hailed Mr Allawi for his "leadership" and the "immense courage" shown by him and his colleagues in the Iraqi interim government.

"I feel a great sense of honour and also humility being here," said Mr Blair.

Mr Blair told the press conference he recognised that the run-up to the elections was taking place against a backdrop of real security difficulties.

He said: "I feel a sense of humility. I know it is a very tough challenge. You can see that and feel it being here. I am sure that there are parts of Iraq that are very much calmer. But here in Baghdad you feel the sense of the challenge and the difficulty that there is."

Mr Blair was asked whether he believed the sacrifice of thousands of lives had been worthwhile.

The Prime Minister said: "When I meet the people working alongside the UN, Iraqis in fear of their lives everyday because they are trying to bring freedom and democracy to their people, when I see their courage and their determination and know that they speak for the vast majority of people in Iraq who want that democracy and freedom, then I know that we are doing the right thing.

"And whatever people felt about the original conflict, we the British aren't a nation of quitters. What is very obvious to me is that the Iraqi people here, they are not going to quit on this task either. They are going to see it through.

"And just imagine the difference that a stable and democratic Iraq would make not just to people in Iraq, but throughout the whole of the region and the world.

"Now when I see that, yes I believe we did the right thing."

Mr Allawi told reporters: "Of course we in Iraq do greatly appreciate the sacrifices of the British people, the brave soldiers of Britain and other friendly nations. I assure you that it was all for a very good cause."