Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blair Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

More Than Two Dozen Kidnapped by Gunmen in Iraqi Army Uniforms

BAGHDAD, Dec. 17 -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Baghdad Sunday on an unannounced visit and said his country's troops will remain in Iraq "until the job is done," while gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms burst into Red Crescent offices and kidnapped more than two dozen people at the humanitarian organization.

"British troops will remain until the job is done and that job is building up the Iraqi capability," Blair said, echoing similar statements from President Bush about American troops.

Blair made his comments to reporters after emerging from a one-hour meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

When asked about his defense minister's statement a few weeks ago that most British troops will be pulled out by next year, Blair said: "It has always been our strategy . . . with Saddam [Hussein] removed to have a political process that is democratic and to have our forces in support of that Democratic process, but as the Iraqi capability grows, then to stand our forces down.

"This is not a change in our policy. This is our policy," Blair said.

Blair told reporters that he and Maliki had discussed the need for national reconciliation and building up Iraq's security forces to fight the increasingly violent sectarian fighting that is killing scores of civilians every day. Sunday was the second day of a two-day national reconciliation conference in Baghdad intended to unite ethic, religious and political groups behind a strategy to end the deadly sectarian fighting.

"We stand ready to support you in every way that we can so that in time the Iraq government and the Iraqi people can take full responsibility for their affairs," Blair said at the news conference, Reuters news service reported.

"Most of all I reiterated our determination to stand full square behind you and the Iraqi people in assuring that your democracy is not destroyed by terrorism, sectarianism, by those who wish to live in hatred rather than in peace," he said.
Blair, who is traveling in the Middle East to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace, flew to Baghdad by a Royal Air Force transport plane from Cairo, the Associated Press reported. The British prime minister was whisked into the heavily fortified Green Zone from the airport on a military helicopter. It was his sixth trip to Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Britain has some 7,000 troops in Iraq, most based around Basra in the south -- the largest commitment of any country after the United States. More than 120 British personnel have died in the country since the 2003 invasion, the AP reported.

In the latest sign of Iraq's growing violent chaos, gunmen in five pickup trucks on Sunday pulled up at the office of the Iraqi Red Crescent in downtown Baghdad and kidnapped 25 employees and three security guards from an adjacent building, police said, according to wire service and CNN reports. The kidnappers took only the men.

The Red Crescent, which is part of the international Red Cross movement, has about 1,000 staff and 200,000 volunteers in Iraq. It works with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which visits detainees and tries to provide food, water and medicine to Iraqis.

"We don't know who they are. We don't know why they did this," said Antonella Notari, a Red Cross spokeswoman in Geneva, the AP reported. She also said the Iraqi Interior Ministry denied any involvement and had assured that it was searching for the people who were kidnapped.

Mazin Abdellaha, the secretary-general of the Iraqi Red Crescent, appealed to the kidnappers to release the captives. "They represent a humanitarian agency that works for the general good, and this agency helps all people regardless of their sect or ethnicity," Abdellaha said, according to the AP.


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