Blair pledges support for Iraq government


British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged his full support for Iraq's government during a visit to Baghdad today and vowed not to let democracy be destroyed by "those who wish to live in hatred".

In an incident which highlighted Iraq's security challenges, gunmen wearing police uniforms carried out a mass kidnapping at a Red Crescent office in Baghdad. Police said 10 to 20 people were seized but Red Crescent officials put the figure higher.

Mr Blair said he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had discussed the need for national reconciliation and building up Iraq's security forces to fight soaring Shia-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
British Prime Minister Tony Blair

"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," Mr Blair, who is on a tour of Middle East countries, told a news conference.

"Most of all I reiterated our determination to stand full square behind you and the Iraqi people in assuring that your democracy is not destroyed by terrorism, sectarianism, by those who wish to live in hatred rather than in peace," he said.

The visit by Mr Blair, Washington's closest ally, came at a time when US President George W. Bush, is rethinking his Iraq strategy following the defeat of his Republicans in mid-term elections and in the face of mounting US military casualties.

Mr Blair has said British troops will remain in Iraq until their job was done.

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

A Red Crescent official and witnesses said the gunmen, who arrived in pickup trucks at the office in central Karrada, separated men from women and took off with some 25 victims.

"They took all the men, separated them from the women and left," a witness said.

The Iraqi Red Crescent, the only Iraqi aid agency working in all of the country's 18 provinces, has 1,000 staff and 200,000 volunteers. Last week, its vice president accused US forces in Iraq of carrying out attacks on its offices over the last three years, and said they also felt pressure from militant groups.

Baghdad is plagued by daily kidnappings, many of which are carried out by armed groups on either side of the communal conflict between majority Shia and Sunni Arabs. Criminal gangs also carry out mass kidnappings for extortion.

Last week, gunmen in camouflage fatigues abducted some 30 people in an industrial area in central Baghdad but released most of them a few hours later.

Maliki's Shia-led government is under pressure from Washington to do more to stem daily violence that UN officials estimate kills more than 100 people a day. Violence has complicated US and British plans to withdraw their troops.