BAGHDAD – Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose premiership has been dominated by his unpopular decision to join the Iraq war, arrived here on a farewell visit Saturday, and three mortar shells or rockets slammed into the compound where he met with Iraq's leaders.
The attack on Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone wounded one person, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor. One round hit the British Embassy compound, security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
It was not known if Blair was in the embassy at the time, but he appeared to refer to the attack when he held a news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani after meeting with them privately.
A fourth projectile exploded just outside the Green Zone.
Later in the day, as Blair visited British forces in southern Iraq, two mortar rounds exploded nearby, hurting no one, British military officials said.
Blair, who was on his seventh and final visit to Iraq as Britain's prime minister, said in Baghdad that he believed security was improving in Iraq, but acknowledged mortar attacks and terrorist attacks were still daily occurrences.
"Iraq was liberated from the terrible dictatorship of Saddam (Hussein) and now there are attempts to oppress it in a different ways with terrorism and violence," he said.
Blair said he told al-Maliki and Talabani that Britain would continue to support them after he left office in June, and he urged them to speed up reconciliation between Iraq's divided communities by calling new provincial elections and increasing efforts to bring tribal leaders and others linked to violence into the political process.
Blair appeared irritated at repeated news conference questions about levels of violence, saying Iraqi officials had assured him in talks that there were signs of progress on security.
"There is violence and terrorism in Iraq, but what they are saying is that there is also hope and change," Blair said.
During his 45-minute meeting with al-Maliki, which Talabani joined after it was under way, the British leader "injected a sense of urgency" into attempts to increase political representation for Sunnis, Blair's spokesman said.
Blair did not win an agreement from the Iraqi leaders to hold new provincial elections, the spokesman said. "We can't speak for them, but we are confident they are moving in the right direction on elections," said the spokesman.
Blair had hoped provincial elections could take place in 2007 and that Sunni groups, who boycotted the last similar poll, would field candidates, the spokesman said.
He said tribal elders and community leaders who may be "connected with people who have committed violence" must be engaged with.
Coalition officials have been cautiously optimistic over evidence that some tribal leaders in Anbar province had ousted Al Qaeda-linked insurgents hiding in their communities, Blair's spokesman said.
Britain does not favor talks with foreign terrorists, he said, but would support moves to bring those whose violence was motivated by "concerns about whether their community will have a place in the new Iraq" into the political sphere.
Blair, whose premiership has been dominated by his unpopular decision to join the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam, arrived in Iraq via Kuwait, following talks in Washington with President George W. Bush on Thursday.
Blair told a Rose Garden news conference that Britain's next leader, current Treasury chief Gordon Brown, would continue to back al-Maliki's government, saying Iraq was a critical battleground in the fight against global terrorism.
"The forces that we are fighting in Iraq — Al Qaeda on the one hand, Iranian-backed elements on the other — are the same forces we're fighting everywhere," Blair told reporters.
After his brief visit to the Green Zone on Saturday, Blair flew to Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.
At coalition headquarters in Basra airport, he chatted and shared a cup of tea with British, U.S., Danish and Australian troops.
One British marine asked him how long he expected U.S. forces would remain in Iraq.
"I think the Americans will be here, at least in a limited capacity, for a very significant period of time," Blair said.
Just before Blair left for home, two explosions were heard near the base, and British military officials said two mortar rounds had exploded in the general area, causing no casualties. Such attacks have been common in the region during the war.
Britain has almost completed the process of pulling about 1,600 troops out of Iraq, leaving a force of around 5,500 based mainly on the fringes of the southern city of Basra.
Troops levels are likely to fall below 5,000 in late summer, but Blair has said British soldiers will stay in the Basra region until at least 2008 to train local forces, patrol the Iran-Iraq border and secure supply routes.
In an emotional resignation speech to members of his Labor party last week, Blair acknowledged violence directed at civilians and coalition troops in Iraq has been "fierce and unrelenting and costly."
A mounting military death toll — 148 British troops have died in Iraq since the start of the 2003 invasion — has led some Britons to call for Brown to speed up the withdrawal of British soldiers and to cool relations with Bush.
Brown said last Sunday that Britain was "a divided country over Iraq," but claimed most citizens — even those opposed to the invasion — accepted that it is in their interests to support al-Maliki's administration.