Blair admits British troops may stay in US area for months

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair admitted yesterday that British troops could be in the American-controlled area of Iraq for months, contradicting assurances from his Defence Secretary that the soldiers were on a limited mission for "weeks not months".

Tony Blair admitted yesterday that British troops could be in the American-controlled area of Iraq for months, contradicting assurances from his Defence Secretary that the soldiers were on a limited mission for "weeks not months".

His admission came as the 850-strong force of the Black Watch moved north to guard one of the routes to Fallujah, into the so-called triangle of death. The convoy of armoured vehicles, displaying Union flags, rolled to areas south and west of Baghdad to help the US and Iraqi forces prepare for the all-out assault on Fallujah, expected to start after next week's US presidential elections.

The British troops are technically providing support for US forces massing around Fallujah. They are in one of the most violent flashpoints of the rebellion. The area around the trio of towns has seen relentless attacks on US forces as well as kidnappings and murders of foreigners and Iraqis.

Militants had taken over Iskandariyah, Latafiyah and Mahmudiyah, the feeder route to Fallujah, and used it to carry out car bomb attacks in Baghdad. Mr Blair conceded in Parliament that British forces could be ordered to stay in the US-controlled area for longer than previously admitted after the assault. There are fears that more British forces will be drawn into suppressing a rise in violence in the run-up to the Iraqi elections in January.

The Prime Minister appeared to contradict assurances given last week by Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, that the deployment of troops outside the Basra area would last "weeks not months".

Mr Blair refused to give any guarantee that no more British troops would be sent to the area near Fallujah after the Black Watch is ordered back to Britain. Challenged by Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, he said the Black Watch would return for Christmas, as he had promised. "What happens then we cannot be sure. We don't think there will be a further requirement for other troops but ... I cannot guarantee that."

Mr Kennedy said: "Mr Blair has left a gaping hole for mission creep."

Bob Marshall-Andrews, the QC and Labour MP, said: "Tony Blair is dragging Britain deeper into the quagmire in Iraq. He has become an electoral liability and he should resign."

John McDonnell, leader of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs, condemned the threat of further deployments. "I am writing to Mr Blair tonight to demand he calls on the Americans to allow the evacuation of civilians from Fallujah, particularly the children, before the onslaught begins," he said.

The Ministry of Defence said the deployment had begun but gave few details. About 50 vehicles were on the move yesterday, including low-loaders believed to be carrying Warrior infantry combat vehicles and Scimitar reconnaissance vehicles. They were heading for a base near Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, to release more US troops for the assault on Fallujah, which critics claimed last week was a political move to boost President George Bush before the US election.

Lt-Col James Cowan, the Black Watch's commanding officer, said: "British forces have just started moving into the north of Hillah." It was reported they will be deployed around Iskandariyah and the Shia town of Nasiriyah.

Andrew Tyrie, a Tory MP, claimed last night that many soldiers being sent to Iraq will be denied a vote in the general election in Britain because of changes in the electoral rules. Troops were registered to vote for five years but, under changes in 2000, they have to re-register annually for the right to vote.

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