Straw tries to avoid defeat on Iraq vote with 'pull-out' date

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A commitment to pull British troops out of Iraq by the end of 2005 was being drawn up last night by Jack Straw in an attempt to avert a damaging defeat on Iraq tomorrow at the Labour conference.

A commitment to pull British troops out of Iraq by the end of 2005 was being drawn up last night by Jack Straw in an attempt to avert a damaging defeat on Iraq tomorrow at the Labour conference.

The Foreign Secretary was negotiating the wording of a new statement by the national executive with union affiliates, based on UN resolution 1546 committing the allies to withdraw from Iraq.

Mr Straw was trying to persuade union leaders to accept the timetable for the withdrawal of troops and back the leadership in the vote at the conference in Brighton.

Union leaders warned him that an early draft of the NEC statement was not acceptable and it was being reworked last night. Ministers were resisting pressure to put an earlier deadline for withdrawal of troops in the statement, insisting they could not abandon the new Iraqi government after the January elections, unless it was with its consent. "We are hopeful we can resolve the differences with the unions," said a senior cabinet minister.

However, there was still anger among Labour delegates over the war. One anti-war protester was ejected after heckling Tony Blair during his speech. Hector Christie shouted: "You've got blood on your hands." Mr Christie, who said he was from the Torridge and West Devon constituency party, said: "I'm protesting because of the illegal war in Iraq. Tens of thousands of people are being killed unnecessarily. Tens of thousands. I know soldiers, friends out there who hate Tony Blair. He should be impeached for this war in Iraq."

Mr Blair began his speech by expressing support for Ken Bigley, the Briton held in Iraq. Mr Blair said his "thoughts and prayers" were with Mr Bigley and his family as they endured the 12th day since he was seized from his Baghdad home.

"I want, on behalf of all of us, to express our support and solidarity to Ken Bigley and all the Bigley family," he said.

Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said he believed the Prime Minister spent too much of his speech trying to justify the war in Iraq.

Last night, leaders of the public service union Unison and the white-collar and technical union Amicus appeared to be willing to accept the NEC statement, but delegation meetings today will make the final decision. If the two affiliates support the NEC statement in preference to a "troops out" motion it is likely that the Prime Minister will avoid serious embarrassment.

Sources at the Transport and General Workers' Union and the GMB general union indicated they would have more difficulty in persuading their delegates of the merits of the declaration.

Senior sources at Unison said that, in the absence of a deal with Mr Straw, there would be a "huge row" in the conference if there was any attempt to rule the proposition out of order.

The seconder of the motion - a member of the Walthamstow constituency party - decided to withdraw support for the proposition. Without a seconder, the conference arrangement committee could remove it from the agenda today.

Union officials believe that the Labour high command had put considerable pressure on the delegate to drop his constituency's backing.

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