BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday that the establishment of Iraq’s unity government means there is no longer any justification for armed insurgency and that the best way to get foreign troops to leave is for insurgents to lay down their arms.
He refused, however, to set a timetable for the withdrawal of the 8,000 British troops in Iraq and said their return home was governed by conditions on the ground.
Blair was the first world leader to visit Iraq since its new government was inaugurated Saturday. The British leader flew into Baghdad on Monday, arriving by helicopter in the fortified Green Zone for a meeting with his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki.
Afterward Blair appeared at a news conference with al-Maliki, who has pledged to used all means necessary to restore stability and security.
“It has been longer and harder than any of us would have wanted it to be, but this is a new beginning and we want to see what you want to see, which is Iraq and the Iraqi people to able to take charge of their own destiny and write the next chapter of Iraqi history themselves,” Blair said.
The new government takes over three years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Made up of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, it is the product of months of negotiations following the Dec. 15 elections.
“The important thing is that for the first time we have a government of national unity that crosses all boundaries and divides, that is there for a four-year term and that it’s directly elected by the votes of millions of Iraqi people,” Blair said.
“There is now no vestige of excuse for anyone to carry on with terrorism or bloodshed,” Blair added.
“If the worry of people is the presence of the multinational forces, it is the violence that keeps us here. It is the peace that allows us to go,” Blair added.
Al-Maliki said there was “no civil war” in Iraq but acknowledged that militias, armed gangs and criminal gangs were killing people.
Blair said that a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops would be dependent on the security situation and on the pace with which Iraqi security forces took over from international troops. Al-Maliki said that local army and police forces could slowly start taking control of some provinces as early as June.
“The key thing as the prime minister has said is to have a timetable that is objective, in other words that is governed by conditions on the ground,” Blair said. “There is no point in getting into other dates about it, because it is governed by conditions.”
Like President Bush, who has a 132,000-strong military contingent in Iraq, Blair has seen his public support fall at home because of opposition to the war.
Blair, who has served as Britain’s prime minister since 1997, has said he will not compete in the country’s next general election, slated for 2010, but some members of his own Labour Party want him to set a timetable for his departure now.
Earlier this month, Labour suffered a big setback in local council elections in Britain, winning 26 percent of the vote compared to the 40 percent for the opposition Conservative Party. Anti-war sentiment appeared to be one reason for the poor showing.
Stung by the election defeat, Blair shuffled his Cabinet and fired Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who had expressed doubts about the Iraq war to his boss.
Britons also were shocked to see that when a British military helicopter crashed in the southern city of Basra on May 6, jubilant Iraqis pelted British troops with stones, hurled firebombs and shouted slogans in support of a radical Shiite Muslim cleric.
The crash — the helicopter apparently was shot down — killed four British crewmen, and four Iraqi adults and a child reportedly died in the ensuing melee when Shiite gunmen exchanged fire with British soldiers who hurried to the scene. About 30 Iraqi civilians were wounded.
The chaotic scene, shown on TV around the world, showed that Basra, where most British forces are based, is by no means friendly to coalition forces though it is far less violent than the rest of Iraq.
The helicopter crash brought to 108 the number of British service members who have died since the war began more than three years ago.