Two cabinet ministers have claimed that there is no civil war in Iraq, in a dramatic rebuttal of the views of the former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
In speeches coinciding with the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the Defence Secretary, John Reid, just back from a three-day visit, and the International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, who was in Basra, both insisted that life in Iraq has tangibly improved since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The claim is likely to be repeated today by Tony Blair, who is giving a major speech on foreign policy, but new polling evidence indicates that a growing proportion of the British public does not believe them.
More than half of those polled - 52 per cent - said that their opinion of the Prime Minister has gone down because of the Iraq war, and 60 per cent said they believed that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake.
But the same poll, for BBC's Newsnight programme last night, showed that half the public either wants Mr Blair to stay as Prime Minister, or does not hold a view about his personal future, while 29 per cent want him to resign now, and another 21 per cent want him out within 12 months.
Mr Reid, in a speech to the Foreign Press Association, acknowledged that insurgents are intent on fomenting religious conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but insisted that the threat could be dealt with by a strong government. He rejected the statement made at the weekend by Mr Allawi that civil war in Iraq has already begun.
"The situation in Iraq is serious but it is not terminal. There has been an increase in sectarian violence but it is not civil war," he claimed.
"Despite the worst efforts of the terrorists there has been significant progress by the Iraqis in building their democracy and democratic government, their own security forces to defend that democracy and the beginning of economic revival."
His claims were echoed by Mr Benn, who was in southern Iraq for the opening of a new training centre for Iraqi engineers who will work on restoring the water supply. "I'm in Basra and, and you couldn't describe it as civil war here in Basra.
"There are difficulties in the country particularly in the four provinces around Baghdad but this is my fourth visit to Iraq in just over two and a half years and you can see real progress," he said on ITV news.
The Defence Secretary also insisted that British troops will stay in Iraq "as long as the Iraqis need and want us", despite criticism in the Commons yesterday of the cost of the war. Last month, the Ministry of Defence applied for an extra £1,098m for Iraq operations for the current year, plus £220m for military operations in Afghanistan.
The chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, James Arbuthnot, complained about "the inadequacy of information" in the MoD accounts.Reuse content