Blair Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

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Prime Minister Tony Blair paid British troops in Iraq a surprise visit on Thursday to boost morale as they contemplate a holiday spent far from home.

Blair flew into the southern city of Basra from Kuwait aboard a British military plane. The trip was not disclosed in advance for security reasons. The pre-Christmas visit was Blair's fourth trip to Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

Blair was to meet with senior British and American officials on Iraq's security situation and last week's parliamentary election.

Washington and London, facing persistent domestic opposition to the war, hope the election will produce a stable government and pave the way for the withdrawal of some American and British troops. The ballots are still being counted.

Britain has 8,000 troops in the country, based around Basra. The contingent is second only to that of the United States, with 160,000 troops. Ninety-eight British troops have died in Iraq since the invasion.

The British leader has repeatedly said British troops will not leave Iraq until Iraq's government asks them to go. Recently, though, Blair and senior ministers have spoken of reducing the number of British troops as early as March, after the new government is installed.

Blair said last month that it was "entirely reasonable to talk about the possibility of withdrawal of troops next year."

Blair's popularity has been battered by his decision to join the U.S.-led invasion, and he has faced allegations that his administration exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction to bolster the case for war.

Blair's Labour Party was re-elected to a historic third term in May, but its House of Commons majority was slashed, partly as a result of opposition to the war.

Last week the commander of Britain's 7th Armoured Brigade in Iraq, Brig. Patrick Marriott, said there should be no significant reduction in the number of British troops until after provincial elections in the south next spring, because of the risk of factional fighting between rival Shiite groups.

In the months after the 2003 invasion, British troops enjoyed relative peace in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq compared to the restive Sunni regions further north. British commanders pointed out with pride that soldiers patrolled in berets, rather than helmets.

But violence in the region has escalated. Roadside bombs and other attacks have killed 10 British soldiers in southern Iraq since May. The instability was highlighted in September when British troops stormed a police station to free two commandos who had been arrested by Iraqi police. The soldiers were subsequently found in the custody of Shiite militias and the incident led to an eruption of violence in Basra that saw British troops attacked by a crowd with stones and Molotov cocktails.

British troops' main task officially is to train Iraqi security forces, but Marriott said 60 percent of his soldiers' time was now spent on "force protection" rather than training or reconstruction.