Blair meeting with Colonel Gaddafi moves a step closer

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Indy Politics

The prospect of a historic meeting between Tony Blair and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi moved a crucial step closer yesterday when it was announced that Libya's Foreign Minister had been invited to visit London.

In a sign of the rapidly improving relations between the two countries, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said Abdulrahman Shalgam would be the first member of the Libyan government to visit Britain in more than 20 years. The announcement follows Tripoli's decision to dismantle its weapons programmes.

Details of Mr Shalgam's visit have yet to be worked out, but Mr Straw said he would arrive in "three or four weeks". The minister, who will discuss a range of bilateral and international issues, may be invited to Downing Street as well as the Foreign Office.

In a Commons statement, Mr Straw hailed Libya's move as an important step towards enhancing international peace and stability.As if to underline the visit by Mr Shalgam, Mr Straw added that the UK now had "corresponding responsibilities to enable Libya to come fully into the mainstream of the international community".

He concluded: "This will form part of the process of implementing the decision by Libya to dismantle its weapons programmes."

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, urged a "healthy degree of caution", and suggested that the lifting of all sanctions should await the actual dismantling of the weapons programmes.

The agreement with Libya, which followed more than eight months of intensive secret negotiations with US and British officials, was announced just after the Commons started its Christmas recess. Mr Straw said Libya "had not yet developed a nuclear weapon, but was on the way to doing so". The country had also provided evidence of "activity in the chemical weapons field".

The Foreign Secretary said the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had removed the security threat to the region which had led states such as Libya to develop their own weapons of mass destruction.

Earlier, Mr Straw confirmed that British troops would be on the ground in Iraq for years to come, possibly as late as 2007. An appointed Iraqi interim administration should take charge as planned on 1 July, but that would not mean an end to the work of the US-led coalition, he warned. There was no "exact timescale" for their withdrawal but "it is not going to be months", he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. "I can't say whether it is going to be 2006, 2007," he said.

His words were seized on by those MPs who warned that Britain had failed to plan a proper exit strategy before the conflict started. Doug Henderson, a former defence minister who opposed the war, said it confirmed his warnings in the run-up to conflict.

"We were accused of being alarmist at the time, but it now looks as though some of our fears are beginning to materialise," he told BBC Radio 4's The World At One. "It's very difficult for UK or US forces to withdraw. A number of military commanders who shared my view that it was a high-risk strategy, I am sure, gave that kind of advice, but whether it got through to the Government or whether the Government listened to that advice, I don't know."

Nicholas Soames, the Conservative defence spokesman, called it "further evidence of the faulty assumptions" made by ministers.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "The Government should take the British people into its confidence and tell them precisely how much it is costing and how long it is planned that 10,000 UK troops will be deployed in Iraq."