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Blair Makes Surprise Visit to Baghdad


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has paid a surprise visit to Iraq. He met with election officials and Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The British leader acknowledged that security is bad, but he gave his full support to holding Iraq's elections on schedule next month.

Mr. Blair made his unannounced visit to Iraq under the tightest security, flying into the country from Jordan. In a joint news conference with Mr. Allawi, the British leader strongly backed the elections scheduled for next month, despite an expected upsurge in violence before the balloting.

Mr. Blair, who is visiting several nations in the Middle East this week, said it no longer matters what other countries thought about the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. He said there is only one side to be on, that is on the side of the Iraqi people, in what he called "clearly a battle between democracy and terror."

"And where should the rest of the world stand? To say, well that's your problem, go and look after it? Or you are better off with Saddam Hussein running the country? As if the only choice they should have in the world is a choice between a brutal dictator killing hundreds of thousands of people, or terrorists and insurgents," he said. "There is another choice for Iraq. The choice is democracy. The choice is freedom. And our job is to help them get there, because that's what they want."

Iraqis are scheduled to vote January 30 for members of an Interim National Assembly, which will draft the country's new constitution. Prime Minister Allawi said his government is determined to hold the election on schedule, despite calls from some political parties to delay the vote.

"We have to stand firm. We have to stand tall," he said. "We have to defeat the insurgents. We have to defeat the evil forces. We have to defeat terror. And this is really to protect the whole world, and the generations to come."

Mr. Blair said pre-election violence is the work of terrorists and insurgents who want to keep Iraq from becoming a democracy.

The British prime minister met with several members of the Iraqi Electoral Commission that is organizing the poll. Three commission employees were gunned down in a daytime attack Sunday in Baghdad. Mr. Blair said he considers the poll workers to be heroes, who keep doing their jobs despite the threat of death.

"I said to them that I thought they were the heroes of the new Iraq that is being created, because here are people who are risking their lives every day to make sure that the people of Iraq get a chance to decide their own destiny," he went on to say.

Britain has more than 9,000 troops in Iraq, the second-largest international military deployment after the United States. Mr. Blair said every day coalition troops are training Iraqi security forces is one day closer to the day they can leave.