Blair vows to stay course in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair made his fourth and final pre-Christmas, morale-boosting visit to British troops in Iraq yesterday, only hours after masked men staged a mass kidnapping in Baghdad.

The Prime Minister has visited the British contingent in Basra every Christmas since the Iraq war began in 2003. This time, he combined the trip with visits to Turkey, Egypt, Baghdad and Israel, but pointedly bypassed Syria.

His tour coincides with a rethink in Washington of US policy in Iraq, and a promise that the 7,200-strong British force in the oil-rich south of the country will be gradually withdrawn. But the Prime Minister told an audience of about 300 troops from the 19 Light Brigade: "This isn't a change of our policy. Don't be under any doubt at all. British troops will remain until the job is done.

"Our country and countries like it are having to rediscover what it means to fight for what we believe in. This is real conflict, real battle, and it is a different kind of enemy - not fighting a state, but fighting a set of ideas and ideologies, a group of extremists who share the same perspectives."

Earlier in the day, he flew by helicopter into Baghdad's heavily fortified green zone for a meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, just as news broke that gunmen in army uniforms had stormed the office of the nearby Iraqi Red Crescent and kidnapped 28 male staff, visitors and guards. The Red Crescent, the only aid agency working in all 18 of Iraq's provinces, has 1,000 staff and 200,000 volunteers.

Kidnappings by armed groups from either side of Iraq's sectarian divide are now a daily event. Violence - between Iraq's Shia majority, and the Sunni minority who have traditionally ruled the country - claims about 100 lives a day.

The report last month by the Iraq Study Group, led by former US secretary of state James Baker, described the situation in Iraq as "grave and deteriorating". The US is now considering sending 9,000 more military experts to speed up the training of Iraq's army and police so that they can take over the country's security.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, expressed support yesterday for a short-term "surge" in American troop numbers, for a two- to three-month period, as long as it is "part of a programme to get us out of there as indicated by this time next year."

But retired general Jack Keane, a former army vice chief of staff, rejected Mr Reid's suggestion. "It will take a couple of months just to get forces in," he said.

Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, who served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warned that the US Army is "about broken" and cast doubt on whether it was possible to increase the 140,000 US contingent now in Iraq.

Mr Blair denied that the US and British decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime should be blamed for the killings and kidnappings. The war had led to Iraq having a democratically elected government for the first time, he said, and blamed "terrorists, former supporters of Saddam, everyone who doesn't want to see democracy in Iraq" for the violence.

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