Theresa May makes secret visit to Iraq

Theresa May has become the first British prime minister to visit Iraq since 2008, touring a military base near Baghdad and holding talks with her counterpart while promising to increase UK efforts to boost the fight against Islamic State.

The prime minister arrived in an RAF Hercules plane at the Taji base, north of Baghdad, on Wednesday morning, flying in from Jordan.

While it had been announced that May was in the Middle East, information about her visit to Iraq was kept secret until she had departed for security reasons.

At Taji, May met some of the 100 or so UK military personnel stationed at the predominantly Iraqi base, where they have helped train local forces, including some of the Iraqi troops who took part in the recently completed battle for Mosul against Isis. May, who was the first British leader in the country since Gordon Brown, talked to an Iraqi soldier who had taken part in the brutal campaign.

She later flew to Baghdad for talks with the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, before flying on to Saudi Arabia.

To coincide with the visit, Downing Street announced a series of joint security measures with Iraq, including £10m in extra funding for anti-terrorism efforts, moves to improve cross-border security, and work to tackle extremist material on the internet.

The UK has about 600 troops in Iraq, almost all involved in training Iraqi forces. At the Taji base, May said this was vital to ensure the forces “are able to conduct the operations they need to” against Islamic State.

May told Sky News: “We need to continue to work with the Iraqi forces to ensure that they are able to provide the security and stability for the country in future.”

Part of the work involved trying to keep track of Isis fighters as they dispersed after the collapse of their self-styled caliphate in Mosul, the prime minister said.

“We do need to ensure that we address the possibility of individuals from Daesh trying to set up elsewhere, and that is about ensuring there are no unstable areas where they can set up,” she said, using the government’s preferred term for Islamic State.

“But it is also about dealing with the terrorist threat in all the ways we can. That includes, for example, working to ensure that their hateful material is not being spread across the internet and inspiring others to conduct attacks.”

Asked about spending to meet such commitments, May said the government remained committed to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, and indicated this could rise.

“We will see an increase in the defence budget over the years,” she said. “Of course we need to look at the threats we face and ensure we have the capabilities to meet those threats as they emerge.”

Speaking before her arrival in Iraq, May told reporters traveling with her that one remaining risk from Islamic State was cyber-attacks, and the group’s wider online presence.

“As we deal with Daesh it’s not just about military action that is taken. It’s about addressing the terrorist threat across a whole range of aspects we need to deal with, including, for example, access to the internet,” she said.

At Taji base, May watched royal engineers training Iraqi forces in how to detect and removed improvised explosive devices. She also talked to medical personnel who have been training Iraqi forces, largely those involved at Mosul, where the level of injuries and deaths has been significant in house-to-house fighting.

Her 45-minute talk with Abadi took place at a government palace in the capital, preceded by a full ceremonial welcome. As she arrived, Abadi thanked her for Britain’s support: “Her visit is proof of the United Kingdom’s support in the fight against Daesh.”

In Saudi Arabia, May was due to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has recently cemented his hold on power with the arrest of a number of princes and other wealthy Saudis for alleged corruption.

The talks will focus on Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is accused of complicity in mass human rights abuses amid a three-year civil war. An already critical humanitarian position has worsened since a blockade halted vital aid supplies.

Speaking in Iraq, May said she planned to “give a very clear message to Saudi Arabia” that the port of Hodeida must be allowed to reopen to humanitarian supplies.

She told BBC News: “I am very concerned about the humanitarian crisis that has developed in Yemen, particularly most recently.

“That is why one strong message I will be giving to Saudi Arabia tonight is that we want to see Hodeida port opened for humanitarian and commercial access, that is important.”



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