The Bush administration will not have a veto over the Government's plans to pull Britain's troops out of Iraq, ministers have made clear.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said decisions about troop withdrawals would be taken independently in the "British national interest" and stressed the situation facing British forces in Basra was "very different" to the one facing their American counterparts in Baghdad.
Downing Street backed his stance as Gordon Brown came under fire from critics of the war for refusing to set a timetable for Britain's exit from Iraq. The Prime Minister will make a detailed statement in October on the future of the 5,500 troops deployed in Iraq.
The issue is highly sensitive for US-UK relations. The Bush administration, which may press on with its "surge" in Baghdad after a review next month, does not want Britain to send a conflicting signal and there are fears in Washington the US may have to send more troops to southern Iraq to fill the gap left by a British pull-out.
Asked on BBC Radio 4 whether what was decided in relation to Baghdad by President George Bush would not affect British decisions, Mr Miliband said: "Absolutely. Our decisions about Basra are about the situation on the ground in Basra, not the situation on the ground in Baghdad." He said British forces had "very clear objectives that Iraq should be run by the Iraqis".
Attacks on British forces have intensified in recent months, with insurgents seeking to portray an expected withdrawal to an airbase outside Basra as a humiliating retreat. The Foreign Secretary accepted that British troops faced a "very difficult, very tough" situation but rejected suggestions that they were already withdrawing.
The Prime Minister's spokesman said UK operations would be conducted in "close consultation with our allies" but said Britain had to take decisions based on the situation on the ground in Iraq, and those facing Basra and Baghdad were different.
Mr Brown's holding statement on Monday, which have may have been designed to reassure Washington, came in response to Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, who demanded an exit timetable. Yesterday, Sir Menzies said Mr Brown's letter to him could have been written by Mr Blair. "We have a moral obligation to the Iraqi Government, but we have a moral obligation towards the young men and women that we send to do difficult and dangerous tasks," he said. "The level of casualties which were taken, not just the tragic deaths which occur, but the injuries which are being caused, that level in my view is now unacceptable for any perceived benefit."
The Liberal Democrat leader added: "What are we achieving politically for Iraq and what are we achieving militarily for ourselves? There are no legitimate or coherent answers to those questions."
He said the money spent on British operations in Iraq should be spent on equipping the armed forces "to a far greater and better extent which would give us a better opportunity to win in Afghanistan". He added: "The risk is that we are sacrificing Afghanistan on the altar of Iraq."
Sir Menzies yesterday declared the operation in Iraq a "failure", becoming the most senior political figure in Britain to do so. Ministers dismissed his claim.
But the independent Iraq Commission, which called recently for a new approach in the country, urged Mr Brown to take firm control of the destiny of British troops in Iraq rather than rely on statements about "the situation on the ground."