British Prime Minister Tony Blair took his Middle East peace tour to Iraq on Sunday, urging support for its fragile government and seeking to draw the violence-wracked country into his vision of a global battle against extremism.
Standing in front of a Lynx helicopter in a cavernous hangar, Blair told some of the 7,000 British troops serving in southern Iraq they were fighting on behalf of “people of tolerance and moderation” around the world.
“This is real conflict, real battle, and it is a different kind of enemy — not fighting a state, but fighting a set of ideas and ideologies, a group of extremists who share the same perspectives,” Blair said. “What we need to try to do is build an alliance of moderate people against the extreme.”
Blair is President Bush’s staunchest ally in the Iraq war, and Britain has some 7,000 troops in Iraq, most based around Basra in the south. It’s the largest troop commitment of any country after the United States.
During what has become an annual holiday-season visit to the region, Blair told troops that extremism was causing havoc in neighborhoods from Basra to London — a reference to the July 2005 transit bombings in the British capital that killed 52 people.
Theme: Fighting extremism
“The crazy thing about today’s world is it actually comes back to our own streets,” he said. “All over the world the same struggle is going on, and if we don’t stand up and fight for the people of tolerance and moderation who want to live together, whatever their fate, then the people of hatred and sectarianism will triumph.”
Battling extremism has been the theme of Blair’s trip to the region, which has included stops in Turkey and Egypt. He arrived in Israel Sunday night, and will later travel to the Palestinian territories and the United Arab Emirates.
Blair’s visit to Baghdad early Sunday was a surprise stop on his tour, designed to demonstrate support for the fragile attempts to halt Iraq’s seemingly unstoppable bloodshed.
After meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Blair urged the international community to ensure that democracy is not defeated by terrorism. But as he flew into 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 aid organization.
Cites progress since invasion
Blair insisted Iraq has made progress since the 2003 U.S.-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 U.S.-led 2003 invasion — was not announced in advance for security reasons. The British leader also met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and senior U.S. officials in Baghdad.