BAGHDAD, Iraq – British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday, urging Iraqis to support national elections and describing violence here as a "battle between democracy and terror."
The visit came as an attack on a U.S. base in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul killed at least 22 people and wounded 50 more, a Pentagon official said. The base was used by both American and Iraqi troops.
Blair held talks with Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) and Iraqi election officials, whom he called heroes for carrying out their work despite attacks by insurgents. Three members of Iraq's election commission were dragged from the car and killed this week in Baghdad.
"I said to them that I thought they were the heroes of the new Iraq that's being created, because here are people who are risking their lives every day to make sure that the people of Iraq get a chance to decide their own destiny," Blair said during a joint news conference with Allawi.
Blair, who has paid a political price for going to war in Iraq, defended the role of Britain's 8,000 troops by referring to terrorism.
"If we defeat it here, we deal it a blow worldwide," he said. "If Iraq is a stable and democratic country, that is good for the Middle East, and what is good for the Middle East, is actually good for the world, including Britain.
Blair, whose trip to Iraq hadn't been disclosed for security reasons, urged Iraqis to back the Jan. 30 national vote.
"Whatever people's feelings and beliefs about the removal of Saddam Hussein, and the wisdom of that, there surely is only one side to be on in what is now very clearly a battle between democracy and terror," he said.
The British leader said that apart from the insurgents' violence, "there is another choice for Iraq: the choice is democracy, the choice is freedom, and our job is to help them get there because that's what they want."
Allawi said his government was committed to holding the elections as scheduled next month, despite calls for their postponement owing to the violence.
"We have always expected that the violence would increase as we approach the elections," Allawi said. "We now are on the verge, for the first time in history, of having democracy in action in this country."
Blair said that as the U.S.-led multinational force, in which British troops are serving, trains and improves the Iraqi security forces, "that brings forward the day that the multinational force can leave" Iraq. The presence of foreign troops in Iraq is strongly opposed across the Arab world.
Blair flew into the Iraqi capital about 11 a.m. aboard a British military transport aircraft from Jordan. A Royal Air Force Puma helicopter flew from Baghdad airport to the city center, escorted by U.S. Black Hawk helicopters.
It was Blair's first visit to Baghdad and his third to Iraq since the dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in April 2003. Blair visited British troops stationed around the southern Iraqi city of Basra in mid-2003 and in January. President Bush had paid a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad at Thanksgiving in 2003.
Blair later flew to Basra, the southern Iraqi city and province where most of Britain's troops are stationed. Britain is the second largest contributor to the multinational force after the United States.
The British leader was a key supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam. His decision to back the U.S. offensive angered many lawmakers in his governing Labour Party and a large portion of the British public.