Britain's Blair on Surprise Baghdad Visit

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) shakes hands with the Grand Imam of AL-Azar Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi at his headquarters in Cairo, Dec.16, 2006 (AFP Photo)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in the war-torn Iraqi capital Baghdad on Sunday for talks with his counterpart Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.

The British premier flew into Baghdad in the cockpit of a British military transport plane on a surprise direct from Cairo as part of a regional tour aimed at rekindling peace efforts in the Middle East.

A spokesman said Blair wanted to show his support for Iraq's embattled government, which is struggling to reunite a country ravaged by a vicious  sectarian war between rival Sunni and Shiite factions.

"We recognise that the challenges facing the government of Iraq today are huge and the prime minister wants to show his support to Prime Minister Maliki," the spokesman told reporters travelling with Blair.

"The prime minister will assure both Prime Minister Maliki and President Talabani that Britain will give primacy to the Iraqi government's views when considering any future deployment of British troops in Iraq.

"The discussions will also touch on Operation Sinbad in which British and Iraqi troops are working to rid neighbourhoods of Basra of insurgents," the spokesman added.

There are 7,100 British troops in the southern Iraqi city of Basra as part of a US-led coalition.

British authorities had imposed a news blackout on journalists travelling with Blair to keep his movements secret for security reasons.

Blair is facing increasing pressure at home over the war in Iraq following a report by an independent US panel that urged his top ally, US President George W. Bush, to change course.

The Iraq Study Group report published earlier this month urged Bush to drop his open-ended commitment to Iraq, encouraged the administration to allow the Iraqis to assume more of the responsibility for their own security, and said Washington should set a goal of withdrawing combat troops by early 2008.

Source: AFP

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