An extra 400 British troops are to be deployed to south east Iraq to bolster election security, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon today.
He said the soldiers from the 1st Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers were being sent "for a limited period of time" on the recommendation of the British commanding officer on the ground.
"The armed forces' principal role in Iraq is helping to provide the security conditions for reconstruction and political development.
"We are focused on developing the capability and capacity of the Iraqi security forces; 115,000 Iraqi security personnel are now trained, equipped and operating.
"On the recommendation of the general officer commanding we will soon be deploying the extremely-high-readiness reserve battalion for Operation Telic, which is 1st Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers, from Cyprus to MND south east for a limited period of time in support of election security.
"Four hundred extra troops will be deployed to Iraq."
Mr Hoon made his announcement during question time - to the fury of Tories who said it should have been the subject of a full statement.
Opposition spokesman Keith Simpson said the important announcement concerning a"very serious" situation had been "slipped out" in question time.
"It is not sufficient for you to do this; there should be a statement; there are many colleagues on all sides of the House who would like the opportunity to press you on this."
He said the deployment showed the country needed more infantry "not the cuts you have carried out".
But Mr Hoon said everyone had been aware that the troops were being held "at very, very high readiness specifically for this purpose".
"You are making the cheapest party political points out of something that is very important and very serious," he said.
And he said the move had "no relevance whatsoever" to controversial changes to the regimental structure announced before Christmas.
Mr Simpson also incurred the wrath of Speaker Michael Martin over his calls for a statement: "You won't tell me what to do," he told him.
Mr Hoon insisted that there was no suggestion of forces being moved to Baghdad or the Sunni Triangle.
"No such decision has been taken or is in prospect," he told MPs.
Liberal Democrat spokesman Paul Keetch said the way the announcement was made was "outrageous".
"It comes at a time when newspaper reports in the United States are talking about their forces becoming hit squads; it comes at a time when a senior US general is visiting Iraq to determine the process and the role of forces there; and it comes at a time when our own Prime Minister has said that he is in discussion with President Bush about the future role of British forces in Iraq.
"The announcement today should have been properly discussed in a statement not simply slipped out."
He said any movement of British forces outside the south east zone would "not receive the wholehearted support of many people in this country".
Mr Hoon said MPs had "every opportunity" to raise questions about Iraq during the hour-long question session.
The Iraqi elections are scheduled for January 30.Reuse content