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BRIAN BRADY / Scotsman | October 30 2006

TONY Blair's claim that the war in Iraq has not fuelled terrorism was dealt a devastating blow last night as leaked Cabinet documents acknowledged that Britain's military forays had contributed to extremist attacks.

Papers put before a Cabinet committee on security earlier this month, and circulated to ministers and security chiefs, declare bluntly that the UK should rein in its ambitions in the Middle East.

In a frank declaration, the papers demand "a significant reduction in the number and intensity of the regional conflicts that fuel terror activity".

The assertion is a hammer blow to the Prime Minister, who has attempted for months to separate the Iraq conflict from terror attacks such as last year's London bombings.

He has consistently claimed that as attacks like 9/11 pre-date the Iraqi offensive, there can be no link between increased terror activity and Britain's foreign policy.

But the private papers appear to blow a hole in his argument.

The revelations could not come at a worse time for the Prime Minister, who this week must face the first Commons vote on the war since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The SNP will lead a debate on Tuesday calling for senior MPs to head an inquiry into the run-up to the war and handling of the aftermath.

The government will now come under massive pressure from critics who argue that the Iraqi war has made Britons less safe.

The Cabinet papers say that actions overseas must in future be designed to reduce the threat of terrorism.

They add that, in an ideal world, "the Muslim would not perceive the UK and its foreign policies as hostile".

They then go on to set out a list of "perfect scenarios" in a series of trouble-spots - including stability for Iraq and Afghanistan - 10 years from now.

As well as Israel living in "peaceful coexistence" with its Arab neighbours and Iran being devoid of nuclear weapons, they say that there should be "no new failed states, dictatorships or wars" in the Middle East and South Asia.

"If all or most of the above were in place, threats from other sources of Islamic terrorism (eg Indonesia, Philippines, Nigeria) would be manageable or on the way to resolution," they conclude.

In a clear indication of the government's lowering ambitions, the papers conclude: "Any remaining deployments of the British armed forces should be seen as contributing to international stability and security."

Actions should be designed to reduce terrorism, "especially that in or directed against the UK".

Blair's holding line on Iraq has taken a battering in recent months, especially after the posthumous video recording of one of the London bombers, Shehzad Tanweer, who said his actions were provoked by British foreign policy and that attacks would continue until soldiers were withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan.

That followed a poll which showed that a quarter of British Muslims believed the 7/7 attacks to be justified because of the government's support for the War on Terror.

Downing Street declined to comment on the leaked documents last night. However, a spokesman said: "We recognise that people have used Iraq as an excuse for terrorist activity, but clearly plenty of terrorist activity against the UK and its citizens has pre-dated that."

Blair is now facing the genuine prospect of defeat in Tuesday's debate. More than 30 Labour MPs have already put their name to an identical motion tabled last November. If they support it on Tuesday they will reduce Labour's 67-seat majority to a single vote at a stroke.

The greater threat could come from David Cameron, who is considering ditching the Tories' long-held support for the Iraq policy by abstaining from a vote.

Scotland on Sunday understands that the Tory leadership favours a large-scale inquiry into the Iraq imbroglio along the lines of the Franks Inquiry into the Falklands War in 1982.

In a separate development, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett last night played down the suggestion that large numbers of British troops might be returned home soon.

"I think you're perhaps a little impatient to see a huge change, which I don't think we are yet in," she said.

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