UK troops to Baghdad warning

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Tony Blair was last night accused of conspiring to use British troops in Iraq as a "political gesture" to boost George Bush's campaign in the US presidential elections.

Nicholas Soames, the Conservative defence spokesman, suggested that the reported plans to send a battalion into US-controlled areas around Baghdad were being carried out for political reasons.

Mr Soames said: "We need to watch the timing of all this and to be careful that this isn't just being used as a kind of political gesture to reassure the Americans of Prime Minister Blair's support for the American efforts."

Mr Blair is considering a request to send around 650 troops north to help free up American soldiers to mount a major operation against insurgents in Fallujah. The most likely candidate is thought to be the Black Watch, which is currently acting as the reserve battalion in Iraq.

Mr Soames added: "The concept of peacekeeping is one that is alien to our American friends. They don't use the same tactics as we do."

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, urged Mr Blair to reject the American request yesterday, warning that it could associate all British troops with aggressive US methods: "The last time US forces attacked Fallujah they left 1,000 civilians dead and uproar across Iraq at their heavy-handed tactics ... If Britain frees up US forces for the next assault we may be held equally responsible by Iraqis."

The continuing violence in Iraq meant that it could not be said that the removal of Saddam Hussein had left the world a safer place, Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the UN, has told ITV1's Dimbleby programme in an interview to be broadcast today.

His remarks are echoed by Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, in an interview on the GMTV Sunday programme: "There's no doubt about it that the world is in a much sorrier state now than it was before we went to war."

The most likely destination for a British battalion providing "backfill" for the US is Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad. Another possibility being discussed is for the troops to be stationed further north, near Kirkuk and Irbil.

The troops would be under the operational command of the American division but would still answer to their British divisional commander.

Meanwhile, a delegation representing insurgents in Fallujah yesterday offered to resume peace talks with the Iraqi government if the US stopped airstrikes against the city and released the chief negotiator. The talks broke down on Thursday over the government's demands that the city, 40 miles north of Baghdad, hand over Jordanian-born terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who the Fallujah leadership maintains is not in the city.

Fallujah has been identified as the strategic heart of the guerrilla insurgency by Saddam diehards and the groups of foreign terrorists loyal to Zarqawi involved in kidnappings and suicide bombings in Baghdad. But Zarqawi is thought to be a junior partner in the insurgency led by the Baath militia and remnants of the Saddam regime.

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