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Blair declares British will stay in Iraq

Sunday, December 17, 2006 

Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged his support for the Iraqi government in a surprise visit here Sunday and declared that British troops would remain in Iraq "until the job is done."

A kilometer away from where Blair gave his news conference, gunmen dressed in police commando uniforms walked into an office of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society and kidnapped about 25 employees, witnesses said. Seven were later released. Control of the district, in the heart of Baghdad, was given to the Iraqi police in November.

The Blair visit came as President George W. Bush is weighing options for a major overhaul of American policy in Iraq. Among the proposals is a sharp increase in American troops for another attempt at quelling the unrelenting sectarian killing. Some U.S. generals oppose the surge, saying a reduction in violence can be achieved only if Iraqi leaders and their American supporters pursue job creation and political reconciliation at the same time.

"We stand ready to support you in every way," Blair said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in the Green Zone. He said that preparations to hand over Basra to the Iraqi Army were going well, but that British troops would not leave before Iraqis could handle security on their own.

In November, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Parliament that troops would be ready to turn over control "at some point next spring," Reuters reported.

The kidnapping Sunday, the third of its kind since November, followed a familiar pattern. Around 11:30 a.m., gunmen pulled up to the building, pointed guns at shop owners and told them to get inside, said a man selling soup in the area. They went into each of the rooms, ordered people to switch off their cell phones, separated men from women and took the men. Some people hid in their rooms, but the men pried the doors open, breaking their latches.

A clue about the motive came when the deputy director, a woman, began to speak with the men. "They said, 'Who are you working with? What is the name of your organization?'" one woman employee recalled the men saying. "They told her, 'You work with bad people.'"

The Red Crescent, part of the International Red Cross movement, is well known in Iraq for its activity in Sunni- Arab areas. It is one of the few aid organizations that provide relief in Anbar Province and recently assisted Sunnis who had been driven out of Hurriya in Baghdad.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in Geneva that seven of those abducted had been released, The Associated Press reported. Antonella Notari, a Red Cross spokeswoman in Geneva, said the organization was in contact with the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which denied any involvement, The AP reported.

Mass seizures began to surface as a technique early last spring. Armed men, often in uniform, would set up roadblocks, rush into a building and seize dozens of employees. Sometimes the victims are released, but many go missing for months, driving their relatives into a panic of helplessness. The bodies often surface days later in sewers and garbage dumps on the edges of the city.

Those bodies add to the daily death tolls, which in Baghdad on Sunday totaled 32.

The motives can be sectarian, but in some cases the attacks appeared to be related to commerce. A raid this past spring on the headquarters of Iraqna, the largest cell phone provider here, was attributed by an executive to a competitor. A raid on a company that provided its security in March, in which 34 people were taken, appeared to be related.

The Iraqi government wants the U.S. military to hand over control of Baghdad by March, a request the military is considering but says it will grant only if the Iraqis meet certain conditions. Brigadier General Dana Pittard, who overseas the Americans training the Iraqi Army, said at a press roundtable on Sunday that the goal was "not unreachable."

Pittard reiterated that the numbers of American trainers with Iraqi troops, currently at a little more than 5,000, would be doubled or tripled in the near future. He said the increase would come from troops already in the area, and not from the United States.

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