Cabinet set to agree troop movement, but delay likely

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The cabinet is expected to agree in principle today to a request from George Bush's military commanders for British troops to be redeployed to the so-called "triangle of death" near Baghdad.

The cabinet is expected to agree in principle today to a request from George Bush's military commanders for British troops to be redeployed to the so-called "triangle of death" near Baghdad.

The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, will report to the Cabinet on detailed plans for moving members of the Black Watch battalion 20 miles south of Baghdad to release US troops for an all-out assault on Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold.

But there were strong signs from Whitehall yesterday that the timing of the formal rubber-stamping could be delayed until next week to protect Tony Blair, from renewed charges by his backbenchers, that the move is designed to help President Bush clear Fallujah of insurgents before the US elections on 2 November.

Concern was heightened yesterday after a reconnaissance team's report to the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, said the troops would need heavy armour once they left the Basra area where they are now stationed.

Mr Blair sought to answer criticism from the families of the soldiers by saying the Black Watch would be "home by Christmas". He denied any decision had been taken, but left little doubt that the Government would give the go-ahead to the deployment of the British troops to the US-held area.

Party whips reported to the Prime Minister that the mutinous mood among Labour MPs had calmed down after an intensive two days of party management at Westminster to convince backbenchers that the deployment of the troops was needed to deal with a rise in violence, rather than to assist President Bush.

However, the row has further damaged backbench support in Mr Blair's leadership. One former minister said: "Trust in Blair has gone. He has become a liability, and could cost us the election."

Some of the 45 Labour MPs who signed a Commons motion demanding a vote on the deployment of the troops discussed further protests last night, including a symbolic vote against the Government at the end of a defence debate today.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, gave his backing to the Labour backbench calls for a vote. It was rejected out of hand by Mr Blair but one option being studied by MPs is to force a vote of no confidence in the Defence Secretary by opposing his rise in cabinet salary.

The embattled Mr Hoon was summoned by the Commons Select Committee on Defence last night to explain his decision to redeploy the British troops to the US-held area, although the timing of the meeting was left open to avoid further embarrassing him. The Independent learned that Mr Hoon rejected the advice of senior ministerial colleagues not to disclose the timing of the reconnaissance assessment and the report back to the Defence Chief of Staff. Ministers said that, by doing so, he fuelled the rebellion.

In the Commons, Mr Blair said the military request was being considered and added: "If we do it, the Black Watch will still be back home by Christmas at the end of their six-month tour of duty.

"There are some 650 troops involved. I cannot say where in Iraq they are going. They will remain under the operational command of UK forces."

Some of his own backbenchers were dismayed at his choice of the Christmas deadline. "It sounds like 1914 all over again, and look what that got us into," said one Labour rebel.

The Prime Minister denied speculation that military chiefs had been unhappy about the American request. "This is completely and totally untrue," said Mr Blair.

Downing Street emphasised that the request for British troop reinforcements was made by "military commanders on the ground". That point - made by the whips to the Labour MPs - was reinforced by General John McColl. He said on BBC radio that the request for British forces was reasonable and while it was possible to turn it down "I don't think it would be militarily sensible to do so". He added: "The request is in response to the situation on the ground. There's been a spike in insurgent activity as a result of the Ramadan period.

"The military commanders have made a request to deploy forces to meet that situation and from a theatre perspective, it is reasonable and sensible to meet that request."

Labour MPs privately said last night they believed the deployment of the British troops would be delayed until after the presidential elections on 2 November. Ramadan runs from 14 October to 13 November.

However, Labour MPs remain highly critical of allowing British troops to be used to enable the US to mount a massive attack on Fallujah.

"If it is delayed until after the presidential elections and they are going to be home by Christmas, what are they going to achieve in six weeks for their exposure to danger?" asked Frank Dobson, the former cabinet minister, who was one of those who signed the motion that was calling for a Commons vote on the matter.