Black Watch home by Christmas, promises Blair

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Tony Blair today promised soldiers of the Black Watch they would be home by Christmas even if they are switched to replace US troops in Iraq.

Tony Blair today promised soldiers of the Black Watch they would be home by Christmas even if they are switched to replace US troops in Iraq.

The Prime Minister, challenged in the Commons, insisted no decision had yet been taken to move British troops from their area of operation around Basra to free up American forces for battles with insurgents.

But he confirmed the 650 men from the Black Watch would be those involved if the US request was met.

Mr Blair refused to say where they would be operating if the deployment went ahead, although he repeated Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon's earlier assurances it would not be Baghdad or Fallujah.

The premier was challenged by Tory leader Michael Howard over whether a decision had in fact already been taken.

And one Labour backbencher, Marsha Singh (Bradford West), urged Mr Blair to "stop digging" himself into a deeper hole in Iraq and turn down the US appeal.

But at Prime Minister's Questions there was not a concerted onslaught from Labour opponents of the deployment, even though 45 have signed a motion calling for a vote before it goes ahead.

Earlier, Britain's senior officer in Iraq, General John McColl, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme no decision had been made on the US request "as far as I am aware".

He described the request as reasonable and said while it was possible to turn it down "I don't think it would be militarily sensible to do so".

He went on: "The request is in response to the situation on the ground. There's been a spike in insurgent activity as a result of the Ramadan period.

"The military commanders have made a request to deploy forces to meet that situation and from a theatre perspective, it is reasonable and sensible to meet that request."

In the Commons, Mr Howard urged Mr Blair to "be straight with parliament and the country".

The Prime Minister told him: "A decision has not been taken."

He added: "We are about to enter a period of increased activity in Iraq. This has nothing to do with the the American elections. It has everything, however, to do with the Iraqi elections in January.

"We have to create the conditions in which fair elections under United Nations supervision can take place."

Mr Blair said the military request was being considered and went on: "If we do it, the Black Watch will still be back home by Christmas at the end of their six–month tour of duty.

"There are some 650 troops involved. I cannot say where in Iraq they are going. They will remain under the operational command of UK forces."

The Prime Minister also denied speculation that military chiefs had been unhappy about the American request.

"This is completely and totally untrue," said Mr Blair.

Mr Howard asked why British troops were needed when the US had 130,000 troops of its own in Iraq.

Mr Blair said not all units were capable of performing specific tasks.

Ms Singh challenged Mr Blair: "The hole he has dug in Iraq is big enough. Isn't it time to listen to the British public, say no to the Americans and stop digging?"

The premier said it was in Britain's interests to stabilise Iraq, adding: "What we have to do is stand firm and see it through and we will."

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said his party would oppose the proposed deployment because it was not at the request of British commanders, and spoke of the "very great stress and anxiety" of the families of Black Watch soldiers.

There is overwhelming public opposition to granting the US request, according to a telephone poll for GMTV.

Viewers were asked: "Should we help the Americans in Iraq by moving British troops?"

Of the 10,083 callers, 84% said No while just 16% voted Yes.