Blair claims Iraqi insurgents are not winning

Tony Blair yesterday claimed that democratic elections in Afghanistan were "a huge blow" to insurgents in Iraq who are using killings in an attempt to stop the Iraqi polls in January.

Speaking at his monthly Downing Street press conference the day after 49 Iraqis were found murdered by the roadside 40 miles from Baghdad, the Prime Minister said that the insurgents were not winning.

"The fact they are trying to kill innocent, unarmed people is an indication actually of their desperation," he said.

"They know they can't win this militarily in the end. What they hope to do is simply intimidate, bully and terrify people out of exercising their democratic rights.

"There is one thing for democrats to do in those circumstances and that is to stand up for democracy."

Mr Blair showed his frustration at his inability to draw a line under the Iraqi crisis by calling the press conference to launch new measures on law and order in an attempt to refocus the Government on the domestic agenda. His official spokesman said the decision to hold the press conference was taken "late in the day".

His upbeat assessment on Iraq will be treated with scepticism by many of his own MPs, who are still deeply concerned about Britain becoming sucked deeper into the conflict following the redeployment of the Black Watch yesterday to close one of the routes into Fallujah, the insurgent stronghold.

Mr Blair conceded that violence could not be defeated by weapons alone. "It has to be defeated by showing that what we are actually trying to do is to bring greater stability, freedom, prosperity and democracy to these countries - not some imaginary war against Muslims, since the people benefiting are obviously Muslims themselves."

The Prime Minister added: "This can't be defeated by security alone ... The biggest blow that has been dealt these terrorists in the past few months is the Afghan elections.

"That was a country used as a training ground for terrorists and now it will have a democratically elected president and later a democratically elected parliament. That is a huge blow to them. Same with Iraq."

Fears were raised last week by the Chief of Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, that more British troops would be sent outside the British-controlled Basra area after Christmas when the Black Watch were sent back to Britain. Mr Blair played that down, but did not rule it out.

The Prime Minister insisted that the deployment of the Black Watch was "part of a undertaking - a limited operation for a limited period - and that is what we will do".

In the Commons, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, challenged by Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: "The chief of the defence staff understandably was not prepared to absolutely guarantee that those forces would not be replaced in position. But I thought he came as near as he could [to say] that that was not very likely."

Mr Blair is also facing Labour backbench unrest about the plans to merge the Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch.

"The reorganisation of the regiments is actually coming from proposals made by the Army ... but no decisions have been taken on this, finally," he said. "It has got to be done on the right basis for those regiments but also for the configuration of the armed forces as a whole.''

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