Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said it would be "utterly irresponsible" to set such a deadline, which would weaken democracy and strengthen "the forces of tyranny". Although he predicted that Sunday's elections would reduce terrorism in Iraq, he expected the security situation to remain difficult for "quite a period" and suggested the Iraqi forces would not be able cope without the US-led coalition until the medium term.
He told the Commons that the Iraqi government "may well" request that the UN mandate be extended. "The issue of whether foreign forces should be on the soil of Iraq is entirely a matter for the Iraqis themselves," he said. "We have had no indication that any serious and responsible Iraqi politician wants us to go before our job is done. The moment they do - it is their judgement not ours - we will go.
"We proved yesterday what they were there for, not as an army of occupation but as a force for democracy by the Iraqis, for the Iraqis and of the Iraqis. We will only stay there as long as we are needed."
Hailing Sunday's elections as "far better than many had anticipated", Mr Straw rounded on critics of the war, urging them to accept that Saddam Hussein would still be in power if they had won the argument. He accused the Liberal Democrats of "crushing the very idea of democracy in Iraq" by opposing the war. "The British people will make their own judgement about that," he said.
Sir Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "This is no time for triumphalism." He said British forces should be withdrawn by the end of this year. Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, said: "If we want to achieve a constructive and positive partnership with the new assembly, we do have to convince them and the Iraqi public that we have a clear perspective for withdrawal within a realistic timeline."
As Tony Blair discussed the Iraqi elections with President George Bush, ministers expressed cautious optimism that the turnout would take some of the heat out of the Iraq issue. "The Liberal Democrats are stuffed," said one.
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