Troops must stay in Iraq 'to train its forces'

Gordon Brown should abandon any hope of pulling all British troops out of Iraq before the next general election, MPs say in a report published today.

The Defence Select Committee, which visited the 4,100 servicemen stationed in Basra last month, suggested that about 1,000 of them should remain indefinitely to train Iraqi security forces and maximise Britain's influence in the Middle East.

In a Commons statement today after visiting the region, Mr Brown will insist that he will not set any artificial timetable for British troops to leave. He is expected to raise hopes among Labour MPs that the bulk of them will be pulled out by 2010.

He will discuss Iraq and Afghanistan with Barack Obama, who wants American troops pulled out from Iraq within 16 months. The Democratic presidential candidate is on the last leg of his world tour in London on Saturday.

But hopes that Mr Brown would reach a broad agreement with Mr Obama over withdrawal will be called into question by today's report. Although the MPs say the security situation in Basra has been transformed since their visit last year, they say the work of the 1,000 troops training Iraqi forces is "vital" to the stability of southern Iraq.

British personnel appear to be resigned to a long commitment and are building "hardened" rather than temporary accommodation. They told the MPs: "If you are committed to the long term, you might as well do it properly."

In their report, the MPs said: "The Ministry of Defence must continue to support the Military Transition Teams [MiTTS] in what will inevitably be a medium-to-long-term project." It added: "The larger the military training commitment we can maintain, the greater will be UK influence in Iraq, and in the region as a whole, as Iraq recovers its position as a wealthy and powerful Middle East nation. The UK has an opportunity to maintain a substantial position of influence for the common good in southern Iraq, if we can commit the military capacity to do so."

James Arbuthnot, the Tory MP who chairs the committee, said: "This year the security situation in Basra is a world away from what we saw last year. The Iraqi security forces have restored law and order to many parts of the city and the UK is working with them now to safeguard that stability and develop their capabilities. That will need a continuing commitment from the UK to maintain a military training presence in Iraq."

The committee said the training being given in Basra and by a Royal Navy team at Umm Qsar were "long-term projects".

The report said British forces could now move freely in Basra, so the 11 groups of 20-30 personnel, each backed by a 60-strong protection unit, could be embedded with the Iraqis they train.

*The numbers of military reservists are being cut back while undermining and overstretch has led to one in 10 service personnel having to serve longer on operations than permitted under the MoD's own guidelines, the parliamentary all-party group for reserve forces said yesterday. Meanwhile, the Territorial Army's aviation regiment faces disbandment and the aircrew in the Royal Naval Reserve is being cut as cost saving measures.