Blair welcomes transfer of power to Iraqis

Prime Minister Tony Blair has welcomed the transfer of sovereignty back into the hands of local authorities and said that it was "the will of the whole international community for Iraq to take control of its own destiny".

Speaking at a press conference with the Iraqi Foreign and Defence Ministers at the Nato summit in Istanbul today, Mr Blair praised the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, and Defence Minister, Hazim Shalan, for their "courage", and said the emergence of a new Iraq had significant implications for the rest of the Middle East.

"These are two people who are engaged in an immensely important struggle, not just on behalf of Iraq, but actually I believe on behalf of the whole region of the wider world, and they deserve our thanks and our support and our gratitude for what they are achieving," Mr Blair said.

"The vast majority of Iraqi people want stability and democracy, they want a good way forward. The terrorists, by contrast, and the insurgents, Saddam elements, what they want to do is to stop that progress and cause chaos."

Mr Zebari said that "it would be an acid test for the new government" to stand up to the challenge of maintaining a secure and manageable new Iraq.

The Iraq ministers said that they would be asking Nato for more help and assistance for training and equipment inside Iraq.

"We are reaching out to all members of Nato, we are asking them to take Iraq more seriously, it is not a local issue, it has wider implications in the region and even on the international scene. So we are very pleased here, in fact we are confident and we are ready to take up our responsibility, even before June 30," he said.

"I believe today we will challenge those elements in Iraq - the terrorists, the criminals, the Saddamist anti-democratic forces - by bringing even the date of the handover of sovereignty before June 30 as a sign that we are ready for the challenge."

Mr Shalan added: "We have promised our people that democracy will prevail and we will continue on that course, that is why the Iraqi people have great expectations from this Summit that Nato will commit their help and support in training and equipping our armed forces."

At the Nato summit on Saturday, ambassadors reached an initial agreement to respond "positively" to the request of the Iraqi Interim Government for assistance with the training of its security forces, in accordance with UN Security Resolution 1546.

Nato Heads of State and Government are expected to approve this agreement at today's meeting in Istanbul.


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