BASRA, Iraq, (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a lightning trip to Iraq, promised his country”s troops on Thursday they could go home once local forces were managing their own security.
Blair, speaking to soldiers in the British-controlled southeastern area around Basra, told troops who will be stationed in the country over Christmas they were helping to secure Iraq, the region and the wider world against terrorism.
"The importance of this is to try to help the country and the only way to do that is to provide security so the Iraqi forces can build up, and then we can eventually draw down on our own capability."
Earlier, Blair met U.S. and British military chiefs to discuss the security situation after last week”s Iraqi election and future troop levels.
General George Casey, U.S. military commander in Iraq, told the prime minister that by the summer of next year, Iraqis will be in charge of 75 percent of security in some areas of the country.
Blair, on his fourth visit to Iraq since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, mingled with soldiers at Shaiba logistics base near Basra, where he was serenaded by a group of Fijian soldiers in what commanders said was an impromptu performance.
He also broke through the ranks of British staff to greet Iraqi mechanics and engineers before addressing soldiers from the top of a mobile tank carrier.
"If we manage to defeat terrorism here, we”ll have dealt it a huge body blow worldwide," he said.
Tight security surrounded Blair”s visit with a news blackout in place until he touched down from Kuwait on a Hercules transport aircraft, for fear of attacks by insurgents.
British officials will not publicly discuss a timetable for troop withdrawal but they see the election as the latest step on the long road to an eventual pull-out of Britain”s 8,000 troops.
London has said it could start scaling down troops next year but officials stress soldiers will only leave when Iraqis are capable of protecting the country from the violent insurgency that has plagued the war”s aftermath.
A partial withdrawal of British troops could help ease some pressure on Blair over the U.S.-led conflict. His support for the invasion has been the most contentious and politically damaging foreign policy decision of his eight-year premiership.
Continuing violence and British fatalities — 98 since the war began — give ammunition to opponents who accuse Blair of waging an illegal war, since no weapons of mass destruction — the main justification cited — were found in Iraq.
London sent some 45,000 soldiers to support the conflict, its biggest deployment since the Korean war half a century ago.
Compared with Baghdad, where U.S. soldiers are in command, Iraq”s southeast has been largely stable but violence has risen in past months and British officials say local police and security services are being infiltrated by insurgents.