UK troops set to stay in Iraq until 2006
British forces will likely be needed in Iraq until at least 2006, an influential parliamentary committee said on Thursday in a report that pointed to a series of post-war "mistakes and misjudgments."
The report, which accuses London and Washington of failing to plan for the insurgency, drags the conflict back into the headlines just weeks ahead of an expected May election in which Iraq could prove Prime Minister Tony Blair's Achilles heel.
Blair has come under pressure from the public and members of his Labour Party to set a date for the return of British troops but he has refused to do so, saying British soldiers will stay until Iraqi forces are capable of managing security.
"In light of the state of the insurgency and the condition of the Iraqi security forces ... it seems likely that British forces will be present in Iraq in broadly similar numbers to the current deployment into 2006," the cross-party Defense Committee said in its report.
The committee said progress in Iraq, in many respects, had been "impressive" but it said London and Washington had underestimated the insurgency and neglected Iraq's borders with Syria and Iran, facilitating an influx of foreign fighters.
"The coalition had not planned adequately to deal with a post-conflict insurgency," the report said.
AMMUNITION FOR OPPONENTS
Its conclusions gave fresh ammunition to Blair's opponents who say short-sightedness by London and Washington put the lives of troops and Iraqis in danger.
"We consistently warned the Government about the dangerous lack of a coherent plan for post conflict Iraq," said Conservative Party defense spokesman Nicholas Soames.
"This serious failure clearly set the reconstruction of Iraq back by at least a year and resulted in further suffering for the people of Iraq," he added.
In response to the report, a spokeswoman for Blair said troop levels were kept under constant review, adding: "We've made it clear our troop level will remain at the level it is until we hope the Iraqi forces can take over."
Tens of thousands of people marched through London last weekend, on the second anniversary of the U.S.-led war, calling on Blair to bring the troops home.
Italy, Ukraine, Poland and Bulgaria have all signaled they were eager to scale down their presence in Iraq.
The parliamentarians praised the "approach" of British forces in southern Iraq but criticized Britain and the United States for failing to reform Iraq's police service and army, hampering efforts to quell insurgents.
"The coalition's early efforts at security sector reform -- particularly in the civil policing area -- were characterized by short-termism and indecision," the lawmakers concluded. "Only belatedly did the coalition begin building the Iraqi security forces ... Even then a bottom-up, numerically-focused approach meant the Iraqi military, security and police did not develop in a well-coordinated manner," the report said.