Blair Tells Iraqis Troops Won't Go

BAGHDAD -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair said British troops would stay in Iraq "until the job is done" and pledged full support for the country's weak government during an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Sunday.

Just before Blair landed, gunmen in police uniforms carried out a mass kidnapping at a Red Crescent office in Baghdad in an attack highlighting Iraq's security challenges. Police said 10 to 20 people were seized but Red Crescent officials said more.

Blair said he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had discussed the need for national reconciliation and building up Iraq's security forces to fight soaring Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence that has pushed the country close to all-out civil war.

"We stand ready to support you in every way that we can so that in time the Iraq government and the Iraqi people can take full responsibility for their affairs," Blair, who is touring Middle East countries, told a news conference.

The visit by Blair, Washington's closest ally, came as U.S. President George W. Bush was rethinking his Iraq strategy following the defeat of his Republicans in mid-term elections and in the face of mounting U.S. military casualties.

Blair defended London's plans for a gradual withdrawal of its 7,200 troops in the south, mostly in and around oil-rich Basra, as Iraq's fledgling security forces take over.

"This isn't a change of our policy," he said. "British troops will remain until the job is done."

Britain has transferred authority to Iraqis of two of the four southern provinces that it took responsibility for after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. It has said it is confident it can hand over Basra to the Iraqis early next year and that it hopes to have brought thousands of troops home by the end of 2007.

"This is our policy: As the Iraqi forces are capable of taking over the security in Basra, our forces will stand back and take a support role," he said.

The mass kidnapping took place outside the fortified Green Zone where Blair met Maliki and other leaders. Those kidnapped included employees, visitors and private security guards.

A Red Crescent official and witnesses said the gunmen arrived in pickup trucks at the office. "They took all the men, separated them from the women and left," a witness said.

"We call for their immediate and unconditional release," said Antonella Notari, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, in Geneva.