Blair hails ‘new beginning’ in surprise Iraq visit

The election of a new government in Iraq is a “new beginning” for the country, Tony Blair said today during a surprise visit to Baghdad.

At a press conference with new Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, Mr Blair expressed his support for the new executive, which was finally agreed on Saturday – five months after elections for the national assembly.

Speaking from the heavily fortified green zone in Baghdad, he said there had been “three years of struggle” since the removal of Saddam Hussein, and it had been “longer and harder than any of us would have wanted it to be”.

But he insisted: “This is a new beginning, and we want to see what you want to see – Iraq and the Iraqi people being able to take charge of their own destiny and write the next chapter of Iraqi history themselves.”

Mr Blair refused to give a date for when the 7,200 British troops in the country might withdraw, insisting that the strategy of building up Iraqi security forces until they could cope with the insurgency on their own would continue.

But he warned that the creation of a national unity government, directly elected by millions of people, meant there was “now no vestige of excuse for people to carry on with terrorism or bloodshed”.

This weekend saw another wave of violence in Iraq, with at least 19 people killed in Baghdad alone, and there are concerns about the ability of the country’s security forces to deal with the problem.

These have not been helped by continuing failure to fill the two key government posts of interior and defence ministers, although today Mr al-Maliki said the assembly was in “the process” of naming the two ministers, who would be non-sectarian and “accepted by all”.

He said he expected Iraqi forces to begin taking over security in certain provinces from June, and expressed hope that the government could “win our battle against terrorism” – although he rejected suggests that the country was in a civil war.

“There is no civil war in Iraqi – there are groups practising terrorism but there will never be a civil war in Iraq because all the civil entities have agreed to unite to confront this issue,” he insisted.

Asked if he thought Iraq was better now than before the invasion in March 2003, Mr al-Maliki said he believed it was, insisting: “Iraq was full of detention places, mass graves and nuclear weapons.

“There were no public freedoms, no civil rights – Iraq is much better, except for the picture of terrorism now. We had a good start, and we achieved many good things but.[these] are being distorted by terrorism.”

Mr Blair noted that the very act of holding a press conference, where reporters could put both him and Mr al-Maliki “under pressure”, was proof of the change in Iraq.

“For all the difficulties caused by those who want to disrupt democracy, surely the best thing that has happened here is that the people have spoken, the government has a programme and the government wants to deliver for its people,” he said.