June 11, 2007 / 9:16 AM / 10 years ago

UK's next PM makes fact-finding visit to Iraq

<p>Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown meets British troops in Baghdad, June 11, 2007.Andrew Parsons/Pool</p>

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Britain's next prime minister, Gordon Brown, assured Iraq's leaders on Monday of continued British support as he made a flying visit to Baghdad to "listen and learn" before he takes office later this month.

Brown, who is pondering Britain's future involvement in a four-year-old war that is hugely unpopular among Britons, noted Tony Blair's acknowledgement that mistakes had been made in the war and said he wanted to "learn the lessons".

Critics say post-invasion planning was poor, leading to a security vacuum in which a Sunni Arab insurgency took root and sectarian violence erupted, killing tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Insurgents have begun bombing bridges in their campaign against the country's ruined infrastructure over the past two months. In the latest attack, a suicide bomber destroyed a major bridge over the Diyala River north of Baghdad on Monday.

It was Brown's first visit since being confirmed as the successor to Blair, whose popularity at home was undermined by his steadfast support for the war. Brown has always accepted responsibility for the cabinet decision to invade Iraq.

The British government defeated an opposition call for an inquiry into the Iraq war on Monday, sparing Blair and Brown embarrassment.

During the parliamentary debate, Conservative foreign affairs spokesman William Hague said public trust and confidence in government had been so damaged by the war that only a full review could restore it.

Brown, who spent about six hours in Iraq, has ruled out an immediate pullout of British troops. He refused again on Monday to be drawn into media speculation that he may speed up the withdrawal to assuage public anger.

"I'm here to listen and learn ... to see what's happening with al Qaeda ... in relation to Iran ... to the sectarian conflicts, to see all the people on the ground and make an assessment of what's happening so I'm better informed," Brown, Britain's finance minister, told reporters traveling with him.

His visit comes as the size of the British force in Iraq is being reduced by about 1,500 soldiers to 5,500 troops.

Brown has said he will cut troop numbers as and when possible, but aides say he is unlikely to make any big sudden shifts in policy as the British military is already planning further cutbacks.

Brown, who was accompanied by Defence Minister Des Browne, held talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, the top British general in Iraq, U.S. commander General David Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador.

<p>Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (L) meets Britain's next prime minister Gordon Brown in Baghdad June 11, 2007.Ceerwan Aziz</p>

"He made clear to Prime Minister Maliki and President Talabani that British support for the Iraqi government is unchanged," a British embassy spokeswoman said.

Brown said earlier that in his talks with Maliki he planned to discuss national reconciliation between Iraq's warring sides.

"On political reconciliation I want to know how they are going to move forward ... and if I don't have suggestions from them I will put suggestions to them," he said.

Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops have been deployed in Baghdad, epicenter of sectarian violence, to crack down on militants and buy time for the Shi'ite-led government to form a real powersharing coalition with minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

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Washington is demanding movement in key areas, such as revenue-sharing oil law, provincial elections and constitutional reforms. But analysts say the government is weak and divided and incapable of meeting these benchmarks without external pressure.

Maliki said in a statement after his talks with Brown he hoped parliament would pass the laws soon.

"They (Iraqis) are not short of money to be allocated to infrastructure, the problem is the actual spending of it," said Brown, who guided Britain through an uninterrupted 10 years of economic growth.

In fresh violence on Monday, an Iraqi al Qaeda-led group said it was holding 14 Iraqi army and police personnel and threatened to kill them within 72 hours unless the government agreed to free all Sunni Muslim prisoners held by the Interior Ministry, according to a statement posted on the Internet.

It also demanded the handover of officers involved in the alleged rape of Sabreen Janabi, a Sunni Muslim woman.

Earlier on Monday, a suicide car bomber destroyed a span of a bridge linking the provincial capital Baquba with villages in the north of Diyala on Monday. There were no reported injuries.

A suicide car bomb attack on a bridge overpass south of Baghdad late on Sunday killed three U.S. soldiers and wounded six more, a U.S. military spokesman said.

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