Blair admits Iraq is a 'shadow' hanging over Labour support

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Tony Blair forecast yesterday that British soldiers would still be in Iraq in 18 months' time as he warned the country faced more bloodshed

Tony Blair forecast yesterday that British soldiers would still be in Iraq in 18 months' time as he warned the country faced more bloodshed.

Although he conceded that the continued violence had cast a "shadow" over the Government's support, he signalled that Britain's immediate commitment to Iraq woulddeepen. He said a decision on sending more troops - widely believed to be the deployment of another 3,000 soldiers - would be made within weeks.

The Prime Minister said he wanted the numbers scaled down by December 2005, but in so doing pushed back the date for the British presence to remain. He told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost: "I would want certainly by the end of next year to have a substantial reduction in the British troop commitment - I would certainly hope so."

Mr Blair warned Iraq was entering the most dangerous phase of its transformation, before the handover of power planned for 30 June. "We're at the worst time now and in the months to come, because around the time of the transition these people will be attempting to do whatever they can to disrupt that process," he said.

After falling opinion poll ratings over his performance, he said: "It gets more difficult as you go on as Prime Minister, that's for sure. But also Iraq has been a very divisive issue."

Mr Blair said campaigning for next month's local and European elections had demonstrated that voters recognised the Government's achievements on the economy, jobs and public services. But, he conceded: "Iraq is the shadow over our support, there's no doubt about that, there's no point in disputing that."

He added that a decision on dispatching more troops was imminent, but denied suggestions it had been put off because of the harm it could do to the Labour vote in the elections. "It is simply you need to make sure you get this decision right," he said. "The important thing is we have got to remain there until the job is done." Mr Blair denied there was a rift between London and Washington over the status of troops after the transfer of power. He said the political decisions would be taken by the interim Iraqi administration, but military commanders would be in charge of operations.

Hours after The Independent on Sunday revealed the Army was investigating allegations that 10 Iraqi civilians died after ill-treatment by British soldiers, Mr Blair conceded that images of Iraqi prisoners being tortured had been damaging. "They were absolutely ghastly and unacceptable and they revolted any normal and decent human being," he said.

He also confirmed plans to improve relations with Muslims. A leaked Whitehall document revealed a project to "win the hearts and minds" of young Muslims amid fears Britain could be harbouring as many as 10,000 al-Qa'ida supporters.