Majority want troops home by end of the year

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Most people want British troops withdrawn from Iraq by the end of this year, according to a poll by NOP for The Independent.

Most people want British troops withdrawn from Iraq by the end of this year, according to a poll by NOP for The Independent.

By a margin of 3-1, voters want British forces to come home by the time their United Nations mandate expires in December. Sixty per cent of people, and 58 per cent of Labour supporters, want to see the troops withdrawn by then, and only 19 per cent disagree.

Although ministers have raised the prospect of a "timeline" for withdrawal, they insist the decision is a matter for the Iraqi government and will depend on how quickly its own security forces can assume full responsibility. There seems little prospect of that happening by the end of the year.

The findings will encourage the Liberal Democrats, who have called during the election campaign for the Government to work toward pulling out British servicemen and women by December.

Two years on from the Iraq conflict, it seems that it remains unpopular with many voters. More people (49 per cent) think Tony Blair was wrong to take Britain to war than believe he was right (32 per cent). Although the war is still opposed by a majority of Tory and Liberal Democrat supporters, Labour voters are evenly split, with 37 per cent believing Mr Blair was right and 35 per cent that he was wrong.

NOP's survey suggests the "Iraq effect" may so far have cost Labour a drop in support of about three percentage points since the 2001 election. As the only one of the three main parties to oppose the war, the Liberal Democrats are the main beneficiaries but they appear to have have lost some support among voters who back the war.

Labour's private polls show that the party has not won round many critics of the war among the top AB social group. There are fears at Labour headquarters that the "Iraq factor" may cost it a handful of seats on 5 May, including Cardiff Central, Cambridge and Hornsey and Wood Green.

But Labour campaigners report the opposite effect among some white working-class voters, where Iraq seems to be working to Mr Blair's benefit. Some of this group respect him more than they did before the war, and like to see him on the world stage alongside President George Bush, although his "shoulder-to-shoulder" approach alienates many AB voters. Labour officials are worried the emergence of Iraq at the forefront of the election at the weekend will persuade disaffected party supporters to abstain on 5 May. They do not expect a sudden haemorrhage of support to the Liberal Democrats, believing many people who will switch their allegiance over the war have already decided to do so.

But they are worried that, if Iraq remains in the headlines until polling day, some natural Labour supporters may decide to make a last-minute protest vote and stay at home. The hope among senior Labour figures is that the issue fades after a few days to avoid reminding voters about Mr Blair's "trust problem".

Labour complained to the BBC last night over its coverage of the Iraq issue yesterday, accusing it of covering "only one side of the story" after it refused to interview an Iraqi woman who backed the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, wrote to Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, admitting Iraq was an important issue but said parts of the media, including the BBC, "have their own agenda and allow normal news and editorial judgements to be skewed to one side of the story".

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, last night urged fellow opponents of the war to put their concerns to one side on polling day and vote on the question of who can best protect the public services.

He told BBC Radio 4's PM: "To people who say they can't vote Labour, I say, 'We are not asking you to support the war. The war was wrong - I say that when I meet the Prime Minister - but this is an election about how much we are going to expand public services'."

Mr Livingstone said that he did not believe Mr Blair lied over Iraq and the fallout from the war meant it was "almost inconceivable" the Prime Ministers would again commit Britain to military action in similar circumstances.

"We may have lost that first battle, but, effectively, I think the peace camp has won the war," he added.

Where anti-war vote could bite

Cardiff Central (Labour majority 659)

The Liberal Democrats look an odds-on certainty to capture this seat after almost scraping in at the last election. Held by the Tories in the 1980s, it was won by Labour in 1992, but has never been as strong for the party as other parts of the Welsh capital. With largely middle-class voters and a substantial student population, the issues of Iraq and university top-up fees are pushing the constituency into Liberal Democrats hands. Labour's Jon Owen Jones, a former whip but increasingly independent minded, opposed both, but looks doomed.

Cambridge (Labour majority 8,579)

With a comfortable majority and split opposition, Anne Campbell should be assured of returning to Parliament. But the Liberal Democrats are optimistic they can pull off a shock win in a seat that has alternated between Labour and the Tories. They have performed strongly in local elections, expanding from the collegiate city centre to residential areas. The party's growing confidence will be underlined by Charles Kennedy at a rally in the city tonight. He will focus on Iraq and top-up fees, both of which have great resonance in a university city.

Hornsey & Wood Green (Lab majority 10,614)

Labour is highly vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats in a north London constituency where it won more than two-thirds of the vote eight years ago. But an alliance of disillusioned middle-class liberals and Asian voters against the Iraq war spells trouble for the former Home Office minister Barbara Roche. Resignations have hit the local Labour Party and the council is dominated by Liberal Democrats. With former Labour loyalists threatening to stay at home or switch their vote, the result could come down to a few hundred votes.

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