British PM Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Iraq on an unannounced trip to visit British troops and U.S. officials, including Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and coalition commander General George Casey.

British PM Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

Blair arrived in Basra aboard a military plane at 11:20 a.m. local time. It's his first visit in a year and his fourth since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. The U.K. is the U.S.'s biggest coalition partner, with about 8,000 troops based primarily in the south of the country.

``The main thing is to say `thank you' to our troops and to recognize that they're on service during Christmas,'' Blair's spokesman, Tom Kelly, said yesterday on a plane to the region. ``It's also a chance to have talks with the U.S. ambassador and the military command.''

Iraq last week held elections for a permanent National Assembly, the last of four milestones laid out in the country's March 2004 transitional process. The vote drew a turnout of 70 percent, marking a step toward the political stability President George W. Bush says is needed for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Blair was due to meet with officials including Khalilzad, Casey, his British deputy General Nick Houghton and the deputy U.K. envoy Tim Torlot, Kelly said. The prime minister then plans to meet with British troops from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the 9th and 12th Lancers and a contingent of Danish soldiers, who also serve in southern Iraq.

Talks on Elections, Security

Blair, the envoys and the military leaders plan to discuss the Iraqi elections, security and the British view on ``the way forward'' for Iraq and the coalition, Kelly said. No decision will be made on troop withdrawals until the election results are declared final, a government has been formed and that administration has expressed its views on the progress of ``Iraqization,'' by which coalition forces are training Iraqi troops, enabling them to assume control, he said.

Thirty-one percent of Britons surveyed in an ICM Research poll published Oct. 12 by the British Broadcasting Corp. said the U.K. should withdraw its troops immediately, and 23 percent said a firm pullout date should be set.

Blair on Nov. 14 said it was ``entirely reasonable'' to talk about the possibility of withdrawal of U.K. troops next year, after previously saying only that such a move would come once Iraqi forces are ready to assume control. His comment came a day after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the Iraqi military would be ready to replace British troops by late 2006. Since the invasion, 98 British military personnel have been killed in Iraq.

`Partial Withdrawal'

``There should be a partial withdrawal in 2006,'' Sajjan Gohel, a security analyst at the London-based Asia Pacific Foundation said in a Dec. 20 telephone interview, referring to U.K. troops. ``It would take a major upsurge in violence in the south to prevent that from happening. There's no chance that it would be a complete troop withdrawal.''

Gohel said that while there are concerns about attacks on British troops and that Shiite militia may have infiltrated the police in the south, the U.K. may withdraw ``at the most'' just under half of its troops.

Now that the elections have passed, the U.S. plans to reduce its force in Iraq to 138,000 from 160,000. Bush has ruled out setting a timetable for withdrawal for the remaining troops.

In the run-up to the Iraq vote, the president delivered four speeches outlining the U.S. strategy for victory in Iraq, and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney last week paid a surprise visit to the Middle Eastern nation.

The latest election was the last political milestone laid out in Iraq's transitional laws, following the June 2004 handover of sovereignty, the Jan. 15, 2005, elections for a transitional assembly and the approval in October of a constitution.

Uncertified results from Iraq's electoral commission showed the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, leading a partial count in 10 of the country's 18 provinces, including Baghdad. The main Sunni Muslim and Kurdish blocs led in four provinces each. The commission said it won't release final results until January, and it must first investigate hundreds of election complaints.

Source: Bloomberg

Last Mod: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16
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