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(photo credit: AP [file])
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a surprise visit to Iraq, said Sunday that the task of the international community is to ensure that democracy is not defeated by terrorism.
Blair held talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a visit designed to show support for fragile attempts to halt Iraq's seemingly unstoppable bloodshed.
As Blair flew to the heavily fortified Green Zone aboard a military helicopter, news broke of the latest violent episode - a mass kidnapping carried out by gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms at the office of the Iraqi Red Crescent.
Blair insisted Iraq has made progress since the 2003 US-led invasion.
"The first time I arrived in this country there was no proper functioning democracy. Today there is," Blair said at a joint news conference with al-Maliki. "Our task - ours, the Americans, the whole of the coalition, the international community and the Iraqis themselves - is to make sure that the forces of terrorism don't defeat the will of the people to have a democracy."
The trip - Blair's sixth to Iraq since the US-led 2003 invasion - was not announced in advance for security reasons. The British leader was also meeting President Jalal Talabani and senior US officials.
Blair is US President George W. Bush's staunchest ally in the Iraq war, and 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.
Late on Sunday afternoon, Blair flew to Basra to visit some of the troops stationed there. A holiday-season visit to the British troops has become an annual tradition for the British prime minister. The stop was not announced in advance for security reasons.
British officials have said Britain expects to withdraw several thousand troops from Iraq next year. British and Iraqi troops in Basra are currently conducting "Operation Sinbad," a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep aimed at rooting out weapons and militants and launching reconstruction projects. Its completion in the 2007 would likely trigger an announcement that Britain is slashing its troop numbers.
Amid rising violence, al-Maliki's government has reached out to Sunni Arabs for help in curbing the cycle of killing. At a national reconciliation conference on Saturday, he announced that the Iraqi army had "opened its doors" to all former members of Saddam Hussein's army, who lost their posts after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam nearly four years ago.
The decision to disband the 400,000-strong army is widely seen as a mistake because it drove many into opposition and helped fuel the insurgency that erupted after the fall of Saddam, and which continues alongside bloody sectarian violence.