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Jackson fears Army will remain in Iraq for years

British troops will be sent to help the US in conflict zones anywhere inside Iraq, prompting fears that soldiers could be stuck in the most dangerous parts of the country fighting insurgents for years to come.

General Sir Mike Jackson, the officer commanding the Army, said in an interview with The Independent yesterday that troops could again be dispatched outside the Basra area to help the US and Iraqi forces if the insurgent threat escalates. The deployment could also go on beyond the end of 2005 when the US mandate for the coalition to stay in the country expires. "It is event-driven," he said.

Sir Mike's remarks will raise fears among critics of the war that Britain is being sucked deeper into the mire in Iraq by extending its mission.

Four British soldiers have died in suicide attacks and bombings since the Black Watch was sent north to support the US-led onslaught on Fallujah three weeks ago. It was the first time UK troops have left the British-controlled area of Basra.

Aware of the unpopularity of the deployment, the Government has been at pains to say that the Black Watch troops will be back home by Christmas. And Tony Blair said last month that he "did not believe that there will be a further requirement for other troops" to be deployed away from Basra.

"Yes, we have said that the Black Watch will come back by Christmas," the Prime Minister said. "As to what then happens, we cannot be sure. We do not believe that there will be a further requirement for other troops, but I cannot guarantee that, because, obviously, I do not know the situation that may arise."

Meanwhile, Iraqi authorities announced yesterday that national elections would be held on 30 January despite escalating violence. The elections will clash with the annual haj, when millions of pilgrims travel overland through Iraq. They will come from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, making it impossible to seal Iraq's borders.

In Ramadi, 35 miles west of Fallujah, gunmen attacked a group of Iraqi National Guard troops yesterday, killing nine and wounding 17 after hijacking a convoy and lining the men up for execution. Earlier in the day, several Iraqi civilians were killed when US Marines fired on a bus that drove through a checkpoint.

Near Latifiyah, south of Baghdad, a Reuters reporter watched gunmen kill two off-duty National Guards troops and a policeman at a roadblock.

In Mosul, Iraq's third city, the bodies of three men killed by insurgents were left lying on a street a day after US troops discovered the bodies of nine Iraqi soldiers. All 12 men had been shot in the back of the head. Four headless corpses were also discovered in the city last week. A group led by the al-Qa'ida ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has claimed responsibility for the killings. In Baghdad, four large explosions shook the area near the US-guarded Green Zone after sunset but no casualties were reported.

Sir Mike said that all the British operations had been in the Basra area "until this one-off deployment of the Black Watch. That is not to say, in the future, there may not be a military requirement of the coalition as a whole for a British unit or units to be elsewhere".

The Black Watch would be pulled back within a few weeks and would not be replaced at Camp Dogwood, he said.

Sir Mike rejected claims by the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, that the Black Watch deployment was a sign of "mission creep''. "The mission is to provide Iraq with its political and economic future," he said. "That's the mission."

Sir Mike also appeared to suggest that the British deployment could go on beyond December 2005, when the mandate for the coalition in Iraq officially ends. "How long we stay there is going to be event-driven," he said.

Iraq was now more "challenging", he said, adding: "It's clear a minority - and I believe a pretty small minority - of Iraqis with some outside assistance cannot face the idea of progress in Iraq and are prepared to do some pretty revolting things to prevent it. And they cannot be allowed to succeed."