Tue, Oct 24, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Blair meets Saleh as Iraq debate grows

WHAT IS NEEDED Reacting to a perceived sense of panic, the Iraqi deputy prime minister cautioned against pessimism and highlighted the importance of an enduring partnership

AGENCIES , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh yesterday as debate grows over US and British strategy in the troubled country, where violence is escalating.

The Guardian has reported that Blair would pressure Saleh to show that his country's security forces would be ready to take over from Britain's army in the southern provinces of Iraq within a year.

But Blair's office denied there would be any talk of an exit strategy, with a spokesman adding: "They're going to talk about the situation in Iraq and the process of building up Iraqi security forces."

In a BBC radio interview, Saleh cautioned against "panic" in the debate on Iraq and spoke of the need for an "enduring partnership" with the US and Britain.

"I'm obviously concerned about the debate both in the United States and in Europe, I have to say, because there is too much of the pessimistic tone to this debate, even I would say in certain circles a defeatist tone," he said.

He said that while reliance on the US-led coalition would lessen as Iraqi troops take over, "we are not immune from the cross currents of the region, we will need an enduring partnership with our friends in the United States and the United Kingdom."

The Guardian also reported that during the meeting, Blair is likely to seek a private assessment of whether the Iraqi government could do more to boost its security forces.

Saleh will also also meet Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett and International Development Secretary Hilary Benn.

Beckett said her talks with Saleh in London later yesterday would be a chance to "take stock of what's working and what's not."

"We need to keep our nerve. We need to get Iraq back on its feet. We need to establish greater stability," Beckett said.

"We want a decent government that serves the Iraqi people. The Iraqi government is making progress -- it's got a tough job and we need to support it," a spokesman quoted her as saying.

The meetings come after US President George W. Bush met top advisors and generals on Saturday as reports suggested he was increasing the pressure on Baghdad to control the violence and that the US could always adjust its strategy if there was no improvement.

Former US secretary of state James Baker is leading a review of the situation by a bipartisan committee of experts.

He is expected to recommend a change in US policy for rebuilding Iraq.

On Sunday, British junior foreign minister Kim Howells said Iraqi police and soldiers would be able to take over from coalition troops within a year.

"There are only bad options for the coalition from now on," former British ambassador to the UN Jeremy Greenstock told Sky News television.

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