BAGHDAD, Iraq – British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday appealed for international support for Iraq's fragile government, even as gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms staged a mass kidnapping in the capital and the U.S. military announced the combat deaths of three more American troops.
Blair and his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki, discussed preparations by British military units in Basra, the main city in southern Iraq, to turn over security to Iraqi forces. British officials have said Britain expects to withdraw several thousand troops from Iraq next year, despite concerns that Iraqi forces are not ready to keep order on their own.
"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," Blair said at a news conference with al-Maliki.
In another sign of Iraq's lawlessness, gunmen in five pickup trucks pulled up at the office of the Iraqi Red Crescent in downtown Baghdad and abducted 20 to 30 employees and visitors, the aid group and police said. The brazen attack occurred at around 11 a.m.
A Red Crescent official said the gunmen left women behind at the office in Andalus square. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
The Red Crescent, which is part of the international Red Cross movement, has around 1,000 staff and some 200,000 volunteers in Iraq. It works closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which visits detainees and tries to provide food, water and medicine to Iraqis.
Mazin Abdellaha, the secretary-general of the Iraq Red Crescent, appealed to the kidnappers to release the captives.
"They represent a humanitarian agency that works for the general good, and this agency helps all people regardless of their sect or ethnicity," Abdellaha said.
At least half a dozen mass kidnappings have been carried out in the Iraqi capital this year, possibly by armed groups linked to the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.
On Thursday, gunmen in military uniforms kidnapped people in central Baghdad, police said. The attackers drove up to the busy Sanak area in about 10 sport utility vehicles and began rounding up shop owners and bystanders. Police said 50 to 70 people were abducted, but at least two dozen were later released.
On Sunday, the U.S. military said a roadside bomb killed three American soldiers and injured a fourth serviceman north of Baghdad. The soldiers were conducting a patrol to clear a route so that another unit could move through the area on Saturday, the military said in a statement.
The toll raised to 57 the number of Americans killed in Iraq in December. At least 2,945 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Blair, who is traveling in the Middle East to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace, was whisked into the heavily fortified Green Zone from the airport on a military helicopter. He had flown to Baghdad on a Royal Air Force transport plane from Cairo.
The trip -- Blair's sixth to Iraq since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion -- was not announced in advance for security reasons.
British and Iraqi troops in Basra are conducting "Operation Sinbad," a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep aimed at rooting out weapons and militants and launching reconstruction projects. Its completion in the new year will likely trigger an announcement that Britain is slashing its troop numbers.
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 U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Blair said he and al-Maliki discussed the situation in Basra, where most British troops are based.
"The operation there for the Iraqi forces to take control of security of the city is going well," Blair said.
Blair explicitly linked the violence in Iraq to the fight against international extremism and terrorism, saying the bloodshed was being carried out "by the very forces worldwide who are trying to prevent moderation."
On Saturday, al-Maliki reached out to SunniArabs at a national reconciliation conference, urging Saddam Hussein-era officers to join the new army and calling for a review of the ban against members of the former dictator's ruling party.
But key players on both ends of the Sunni-Shiite divide skipped Saturday's meeting, raising doubt that the conference will succeed in healing the country's wounds.
The Shiite prime minister faces growing dissent by coalition partners, including Shiite allies like radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr's bloc said it was boycotting the two-day meeting, as did two major Sunni groups and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.