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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 18:17 GMT
No fanfare for Straw's Iraq visit
By Jo Floto
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

British soldiers
Coalition troops come under constant attack

This was not the kind of visit you expect from a politician.

Jack Straw, the foreign secretary of the UK - a key coalition member - arrives in Iraq without warning, gives a two-minute statement at a hastily arranged press conference, takes half-a-dozen questions from a bewildered press corps, then leaves.

Not even the merest sniff of a photo opportunity.

No tour of the city, no carefully arranged visit to an Iraqi school grateful for British aid, not even a ride in a British tank to tease the front pages back home.

This was a deliberately low-profile visit - the foreign secretary quietly fulfilling his duty of pastoral care, listening to the concerns and criticisms of his foreign office staff seconded to the coalition administration.

Huge explosions

A less generous interpretation would be that nearly seven months after the official end of the war, Iraq is still too dangerous for the likes of Jack Straw to be allowed out.

Baghdad can be a hazardous place - especially for visiting politicians.

Last month rockets were fired at the hotel where Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary, was staying.

The night before Mr Straw's visit, huge explosions rattled windows in downtown Baghdad, as yet again unknown insurgents fired mortars at the coalition.

US helicopter over above Baghdad this week
Coalition forces remain vigilant

This time they missed - hitting the burned-out ministry of information building, just a few hundred yards from the coalition headquarters where Mr Straw was staying.

Although warning sirens could clearly be heard wailing across the vast compound, Mr Straw told the press conference on Wednesday that he had been unaware of the attack.

He was not, however, unaware of the general security situation. Britain has around 10,000 troops in Iraq.

They won't be coming home until the fighting stops - and that looks a long way off.

Rapid progress?

Coalition forces are attacked on average 30 times a day.

In terms of casualties, November has been the worst month for the coalition since the end of the campaign.

Although no official numbers are kept, it is safe to assume that Iraqis are dying in even greater numbers.

Mr Straw, along with the Americans, says that the rate of attacks will fall once Iraqis are running their own affairs.

"I'm absolutely sure that a more rapid political process will assist the security situation," he said.

To that end, on Tuesday night he met senior members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to discuss the transition to a fully sovereign government.

If all goes to plan, an interim Iraqi administration will take control on 1 July 2004.

The occupation will formally end and coalition troops will remain on Iraqi soil at the invitation of the new government.

Mr Straw will also need an invitation to visit Iraq - one he'll presumably be happy to accept, especially if by then it's safe enough for him to make a proper politician's entrance.

The BBC's Jack Straw
"We will stay as long as the Iraqi people want us to stay"

The BBC's Orla Guerin
"Jack Straw emphasised that there was no firm timetable in place for the transition of power"

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