More troops may go to Afghanistan

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Tony Blair signalled yesterday that he was poised to send more British troops to Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban.

The Prime Minister refused to rule out reinforcing Nato forces in the hostile Helmand province with more British troops when he was challenged at his monthly press conference in Downing Street.

He said that the Taliban had to be defeated, and he would await requests from commanders on the ground, but that line has been used in the past as cover for a plan to send more British troops to the region. Commanders are expecting a sharp upsurge in violence after the winter snows make movement easier for the Taliban.

The Ministry of Defence yesterday named the latest British serviceman killed in Afghanistan as L/Cpl Mathew Ford of 45 Commando Royal Marines.

He died on Monday in a firefight as commandos stormed a Taliban fort to the south of Garmsir in southern Helmand. It was during the initial breach of a compound that L/Cpl Ford was shot and killed instantly, the MoD said.

Mr Blair will discuss the failure of Nato partners to offer more troops for Afghanistan with the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visits London tomorrow. He discussed British troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need for reinforcements with Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, at the weekend. It raises the possibility that troops withdrawn from Iraq could allow more to be sent to Afghanistan.

Mr Blair will today face cross-party calls for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. As many as 40 anti-war Labour MPs are expected to sign a Commons motion saying: "We are totally opposed to the 'new strategy' in Iraq announced by President Bush which threatens to turn the disaster of the occupation of Iraq into a catastrophe.

"We call on the British government to seize this moment to break from Bush and instead to begin the process of speedily disengaging from Iraq. Enough is enough - it's time to go."