Reid accused of mixed signals over troop deployment

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Indy Politics

While Mr Reid was endorsing the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's comments that Iraqi forces would be ready to replace British troops within a year, he made it clear that there was no early exit planned for British forces in Afghanistan. Britain is committed to remain in both countries to shore up their security needs while supporting their fledgling democracies. But with the insurgency intensifying in Iraq and in Afghanistan, Britain is now openly discussing a withdrawal from Iraq, while reinforcing the military presence in Afghanistan.

Mr Reid did not address the contradiction in detail as he spoke of a "prolonged" commitment in Afghanistan, following the announcement that more troops would be sent shortly. He insisted British forces were needed to secure a stable democratic society. In contrast, on Iraq, also mired in violent lawlessness, Mr Reid raised the prospect of withdrawal. He said: "The process of handover as we build the Iraqi forces could well start in some parts of Iraq, including our area, by the end of 2006."

The Ministry of Defence said that about 250 troops would be dispatched to prepare the ground for British troops to expand the current Nato-led force into Afghanistan's dangerous Helmand province in the south of the country next year.

Ministers are preparing to send thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan when Britain takes over control of the Kabul-based International Security Assistance Force in May.

In his annual Guildhall speech last night Tony Blair defended the continued British presence in Afghanistan. He insisted that action to promote democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq could have "a tremendous persuasive effect far beyond the frontiers of the countries concerned".

Harry Cohen, Labour MP for Leyton and Wanstead, said: "I'm worried about the conflicting signals being sent out by the Government over Iraq and Afghanistan. There's a credibility problem over saying we can withdraw from Iraq next year. The situation in Afghanistan is also deteriorating. But I don't think we should be saying there is no end in sight to our commitment there. We need to work out an exit strategy."

Bob Marshall-Andrews, Labour MP for Medway, said: "Afghanistan could present a longer-term problem than Iraq - it's slipping back into anarchy. We're in very great danger of being mired for the long term in a country that must resolve its own affairs."

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, said: "Many of us had serious concerns about the Afghan war in 2001. All previous occupations of Afghanistan by outside forces have ended in their withdrawal."