Troops will be in Iraq for another year, Hoon admits

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British soldiers will still be deployed in Iraq in a year's time, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, said yesterday.

But he said their role would alter over the coming year, from being part of an occupying army to a stabilisation force assisting an Iraqi administration. Britain has 11,000 troops, mainly stationed in and around Basra in the south of the country.

Interviewed for BBC Radio 4's The World at One, Mr Hoon refused to be drawn on how many British troops would be stationed in Iraq this time next year. He said: "I would expect to see the role of British forces change, subtly perhaps.

"I'm sure we will still be there assisting Iraqis in providing security. But instead of in a sense being legally an occupying power we will be there in support of a transitional government, assisting that government on the way, we hope, towards democracy."

The Defence Secretary acknowledged that the armed forces would be stretched by the open-ended commitment. But he added: "I do believe we can manage the present level of deployment, even allowing for the need to replace troops on a regular basis."

Mr Hoon said he was optimistic that the allies' plan to transfer power to a transitional Iraqi government by June would proceed.

He conceded that the invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein from power had probably encouraged an influx of terrorists intent on destabilising the country, but insisted that the gains would outweigh the short-term problems.

"What we have demonstrated in military action against Iraq is that we are determined to see the decisions of the international community upheld," he said.

"Countries like Iraq cannot any longer simply ignore the decisions of the United Nations because they know that this time we mean business."

Mr Hoon said he was confident that the Iraq Survey Group would uncover convincing evidence about Saddam's alleged efforts to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction programmes.

"Saddam Hussein had months if not years in which to conceal the details of his programmes in a country that he controlled absolutely," he said. "We have been trying to track down that information in a place where certainly from time to time coalition forces are coming under attack and moreover where certain people in Iraq obviously have an interest in continuing to conceal their involvement in these programmes."

Mr Hoon said he did not believe the war and the subsequent Hutton inquiry into the apparent suicide of the government weapons expert David Kelly had damaged his reputation.