Blair in surprise visit to Iraq

Outgoing prime minister Tony Blair has made a surprise visit to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad for talks with the country’s president and prime minister.

Mr Blair arrived in the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone to speak with Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and prime minister Nuri al-Maliki about the ongoing sectarian violence in the troubled country.

Shortly before Mr Blair arrived the area was hit by a rocket attack, but a spokesman for the prime minister’s party said he had no information to suspect “anything other than the usual business”.

After visiting US president George Bush in Washington, the prime minister flew to Iraq via Kuwait in what is expected to be his last visit to the country before he steps down as leader of the Labour party.

Mr Blair’s spokesman said: “He’s in Baghdad against a backdrop of the continuing major security operation but also significant developments in Iraqi politics.”

He added that the visit aimed to make the most of the “momentum in Iraqi’s politics to create the space for long-term peace”.

As the prime minister prepares to step down, his policy in Iraq continues to come to the fore in speeches and questions about his much-talked about legacy.

While in Washington during talks with Mr Bush, the prime minister reiterated his message that both countries “took a decision that we thought was very difficult. I thought then, and I think now, it was the right decision”.

But the current situation in Iraq is one of ongoing violence and a worsening civilian casualty rate marked by April this year being the bloodiest since the US-led invasion.

Mr Blair’s visit comes soon after the chief of defence staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, visited Basra to discuss the situation in southern Iraq with the country’s own forces and British personnel still based in the region.

There is currently an ongoing operation in Basra to begin the process of handing over some control to Iraqi forces, with a multinational force providing support.

Since the beginning of operations in Iraq in March 2003, 148 British armed forces personnel have died.