Britain is to send another 220 troops to Iraq to help fill the gap when the Netherlands withdraws its 1,400-strong contingent in March, the Government announced yesterday.
The move is potentially embarrassing for Tony Blair, who has raised the prospect of a "timeline" for withdrawing British forces in the hope of reassuring public opinion in Iraq and Britain that he will not keep them there any longer than necessary.
Downing Street denied that deploying the troops contradicted Mr Blair's repeated statements that there were "no plans" to send more to Iraq. His official spokesman said that the overall number of British servicemen would fall by 350 by the end of next month after the return of personnel sent to bolster security ahead of Sunday's elections.
Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, announced that most of the extra troops would come from units already deployed in Iraq, such as the Queen's Dragoon Guards and the 2nd Battalion, the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment. They will be among a 600-strong team which replaces Dutch forces in Muthanna province, south-east Iraq.
The deployment was disclosed as Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, called for British troops to be pulled out as soon as possible and replaced by those from other countries, especially Muslim ones.
Mr Kennedy said Britain and the United States should ensure a "phased withdrawal" of their forces after the elections and set out a "proper exit strategy" that included a timeline "that augments and supports the democratic process". He acknowledged that the elections were unlikely to bring an end to violence, and Iraq would remain a threat for years to come, but said the mere presence of British and American troops was contributing to the insurgency, especially with heavy-handed operations such as that at Fallujah and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of coalition forces.
Downing Street emphasised there would be no deadline for withdrawing British troops. "We are talking about timelines, not timetables," it said.
Alice Mahon, a left-wing Labour MP and opponent of the war, said: "This is Blair's exit strategy. They are desperate to get out because it has not worked. I fear that they will leave the country more divided."
Richard Ottaway, a Tory member of the Commons Select Committee on Defence, which has recently returned from a visit to Basra, said the Prime Minister was "daydreaming" if he thought there could be any early handover to Iraqi forces.
"There is only a 50:50 chance that the local police and the National Guard can maintain law and order. There will not be enough stability to encourage the private sector to invest in infrastructure in Iraq," he said.
Some committee members returned from Iraq convinced that British troops would need to stay in the country for years. They were "shocked'' when they heard evidence from army chiefs this week that there had been no plans for ensuring post-conflict security when the war began.
Mike Gapes, a Labour member of the committee, said: "There is a real lesson to be learnt here for future operations. It amazes me that no one in any of the departments seems to have given any forethought to that in March 2003."