Labour In Brighton: Blair dashes hopes that UK soldiers may leave Iraq early

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Ministers told The Independent that British troops were unlikely to take on a different role in Iraq before next summer - and would then gradually hand over frontline duties to the Iraqi army and police before a staged withdrawal was contemplated at a later date. Despite growing pressure to set a date for troops to return home, ministers insisted that such a deadline would not be set.

John Reid, the Defence Secretary, dismissed a report that British troops would start a major withdrawal from Iraq next May, but said moves towards their withdrawal could start next year. He told Sky News: "There will then be a process - it won't happen overnight - where they gradually take the lead, we gradually withdraw to barracks and we gradually withdraw from Iraq itself. At that stage, when the conditions have been met, we will withdraw. It is possible to start in some parts of the country, that handover, in the course of next year."

Mr Blair told BBC's Sunday AM programme that there was no "arbitrary date being set" for withdrawing troops. The Prime Minister admitted he had underestimated the insurgency, but insisted his strategy was right. "I didn't expect quite the same ferocity from every single element in the Middle East that came in and was doing their best to disrupt the political process," he said. "But I have absolutely no doubt as to what we should do. We should stick with it." He added: "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that what is happening in Iraq now is crucial for our own security. Never mind the security of Iraq or the greater Middle East. It is crucial for the security of the world. If they are defeated, this type of global terrorism and insurgency in Iraq, we will defeat them everywhere."

Mr Blair received a boost last night when grassroots Labour activists failed in an attempt to secure a special debate on the Iraq crisis at the party conference in Brighton. Labour officials said there was "no great clamour" over Iraq after constituency Labour parties instead voted for urgent debates on the National Health Service, gay rights, housing and pensions. But concerns over Iraq may still surface in a foreign affairs debate on Wednesday.

Eight local parties expressed concern at the violence in Iraq when they called for a debate. But only three called for an early date for the withdrawal of troops, saying they should not remain beyond December, when the United Nations mandate for coalition forces expires.

The Cardiff Central constituency party said: "Events over the last year and in particular the last couple of months, notably the unrelenting sequence of deaths of Iraqis and others do [not do] anything to justify any further postponement of a staged withdrawal of occupation troops."

Mr Reid made clear that two British soldiers freed by UK forces in Basra last week would not be handed over to the Iraqis, even though an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant. The judge said they were wanted in connection with the alleged deaths of several Iraqis during a confrontation with British forces.

But Mr Reid said the warrant had no legal basis and he defended the actions of the British Army in freeing the men.

"Under Iraqi law these have to be handed back for the administration of justice to the British themselves, which is why these warrants have no legal basis," he said.