Doubts over withdrawal of UK troops from Iraq

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Doubts about the withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq were raised last night after the Cabinet Office rejected calls for an audit to be published on the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security.

The request to publish the report by the retired US General Gary Luck was made under the Freedom of Information Act by Sir Menzies Campbell, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats. But it was rejected on the grounds that it would "impact negatively upon the UK's international relations".

MPs said the report suggested that the withdrawal of some coalition troops later this year would be a gesture to relieve pressure in the US and Britain for the pull-out to begin, but that Iraqi forces were not ready for a large-scale reduction in US and British troops.

Tony Blair told MPs last year he wanted to publish the wide-ranging audit on the Iraqi forces by General Luck which had been ordered by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary. The Cabinet Office said publication would "significantly prejudice the UK's important interests with the US".

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, protested about a possible cover-up. "What does the report say about troop withdrawal - and have coalition mistakes prolonged our commitment?"

He said: "While parts of the report may be withheld for security reasons, how can theGovernment justify the suppression of even the key findings? Many will suspect the report contains uncomfortable reading for officials in the UK and America."

A Cabinet Office letter to Sir Menzies said publication would "allow more informed debate" about the withdrawal date but added: "The public interest in disclosure is more than outweighed by the public interest in withholding the information. Releasing [it] would undermine the relationship of trust, which exists between the US and the UK and the UK and Iraq."

The audit covered UK assistance to the Iraqi police service in southern Iraq. "Release of this information could undermine discussions and inhibit the provision of candid advice to senior officials about the development of policy towards Iraq," the letter added.

The refusal to release the Luck report follows clear hints from British defence officials that its findings cast doubt on the ability of the Iraqi forces to take over their own security. Officials said the report had been overtaken by improvements in Iraqi security.

Defence chiefs briefed Mr Blair on his pre-Christmas trip to Basra that progress with the Iraqi armed forces was quicker than anticipated but the Iraqi police were not ready for a handover.

The Defence Secretary, John Reid, gave a strong hint last week that the troop reductions would begin this summer. He said the next 12 months were crucial for the Iraqi people. "If the months go well, they bring the day closer when the Iraqi people can finally take control of their own futures.

"That also means that the time is approaching when the coalition which is helping them achieve this can begin leaving Iraq."