2004Edition>News Center>World

Charles surprises troops in Iraq
Updated: 2004-02-09 10:15

Britain's Prince Charles paid a surprise morale-boosting visit to British troops in Iraq on Sunday, and local officials told him their concerns about the future of the country.

Arriving on a Chinook helicopter at a British base that was one of Saddam Hussein's lavish palaces, Charles shook hands with soldiers and officials of the U.S.-led civil administration amid heightened security.

During the nearly six-hour trip, he listened to prominent Iraqi officials discuss a wide list of political and economic problems plaguing postwar Iraq.

At one stage, gunshots rang out from a neighborhood near the base, underscoring Iraq's precarious security situation.

"It's very nice to see him here because he's the future king and he seems like a nice personality to me," Ban al-Durani, an Iraqi woman clad in a black veil, said at the base in the southern port city of Basra.

It was a rare visit by a British royal to the country that won independence from Britain in 1932. Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Basra last month.

News of the prince's visit was embargoed until he left the country.

"It's good to have his support and to boost the morale of the troops," Captain Sandy Stuart, 31, from Dumfries in Scotland, said at the base.

Charles, dressed in a grey suit, met Shi'ite clerics, Christian clergymen, the governor of Basra and a prominent tribal leader in the palace overlooking the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

"I basically talked with him about people's complaints about salaries and how they are demonstrating," said tribal leader Morahim al-Kannan.

"We told him that Iraq must have elections because otherwise there will be no stability. I told him we have no government and we have to have elections," al-Kannan said.

Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslim community is demanding elections before a planned handover of power by June 30. The United States says elections cannot be held before then.

"We felt that he should know that our worries about the transfer of power in Iraq. There are still lots of problems in the country and that's what we told him," Sheikh Haitham al- Sihlaani, a prominent local cleric, said.

Charles, an advocate of dialogue between religions, chatted with three Iraqi Muslim women in traditional veils in a room at the palace.

"I told the prince that we want to make sure that women have rights in Iraq and I asked him for his support," one of the women, Gheida Adbul-Razzaq, said.

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