LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that British troops would only be redeployed to the more volatile, US-controlled sector of Iraq if it was militarily justified.
Blair said he was considering a US request to move a small number of British troops closer to Baghdad, a move that would free up American forces to fight terrorists in Iraq. He rejected accusations that any redeployment would be a political gesture to help President Bush ahead of Nov. 2 presidential elections.
''There has been a request by the American military to the British military, not a political request from the US president to me," Blair said at a news conference after talks with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
''No decision will be taken to redeploy British troops unless it is clear militarily that that should and can happen," he added. ''The only elections that matter in this regard are the Iraqi elections that happen next January."
Earlier, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said suggestions that the redeployment request was linked to Bush's reelection bid were ''complete and utter nonsense"
''It is in everybody's interests, whether they supported the initial military action or were against it, to work for a secure and stable Iraq as quickly as possible," Straw said. ''The purpose of these proposed military changes is to do just that."
US forces are involved in an intensified campaign to curb Sunni Muslim extremists west of Baghdad in areas such as Ramadi and Fallujah, the militant bastion where terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is believed to be operating.
British lawmakers have shown concern about sending British forces to the more volatile US-controlled sector.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said American military commanders had asked Britain to reposition a small number of soldiers from south Iraq to the US-controlled sector farther north. Hoon didn't say how many troops might be redeployed. But military sources have said that if the request were granted, Britain's reserve regiment, the 650-strong First Battalion Black Watch stationed near the southern port of Basra, would be the choice.
Public opposition to the Iraq war in Britain, Bush's top ally in the coalition, has affected Blair's popularity and made it hard for him to shift the country's focus to domestic issues leading up to an expected UK election next year.
Sending some of Britain's 9,000 troops, now operating around Basra, to where there are more attacks by insurgents carries a risk of higher casualties and would be politically sensitive for Blair.