BAGHDAD, Iraq – Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into Baghdad on Monday to lend his support to Iraq's new leadership as it begins trying to restore security and stem the slide toward civil war.
Blair arrived by helicopter in the fortified Green Zone for a meeting with his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki. The two were expected to hold a joint news conference later Monday.
Blair, the first world leader to visit Iraq since its new government was inaugurated Saturday, said last weekend that coalition soldiers hope to transfer their duties to Iraqis as soon as possible, but that British troops would remain here for as long as they are needed.
But Blair, whose country about 8,000 service members in Iraq, also said that al-Maliki has told the coalition that he wants to see Iraq in control of its own destiny.
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 Iraq 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.
But Blair, whose been criticized at home for close ties with Bush, has shown no sign of backing down over Iraq.
On Sunday, his new foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, joined him in saying that the new Iraqi government won't necessarily lead to a quick withdrawal of British troops.
"British troops will stay there, and the coalition troops will stay there, while there is a job that needs to be done," Beckett told the British Broadcasting Corp. "We are making some progress in both training and putting into place an Iraqi army, Iraqi police force, who will gradually, increasingly, take over some of these responsibilities."