Foreign Secretary visits Iraq

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The Independent Online

The UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw paid a surprise visit to northern Iraq today, the Foreign Office confirmed.

A spokesman said he would be having talks with Kurdish leaders and would be in the region "for a few days".

But the Foreign Office would reveal nothing else of Mr Straw's plans citing security reasons.

The Kurdish region of Iraq has traditionally enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and its leaders have been among the most consistent supporters of the coalition.

Its people suffered brutality at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime with the dictator infamously using chemical weapons against them at Halabjah.

Mr Straw's visit comes at a time of mounting bloodshed in Iraq in the run-up to elections scheduled for January.

He would be a prime assassination target for insurgents.

Mr Straw is visiting Kirkuk and Irbil, the Foreign Office said later.

Aides said it was a "long-planned" visit to discuss a wide range of issues, focusing on the reconstruction effort and plans for elections in January.

It is Mr Straw's third visit to Iraq and his first to the north of the country. His previous visits, in July and October last year, took in Baghdad and Basra.