Tony Blair last night stood accused of conspiring to use British troops in Iraq as a "political gesture" to help George W Bush in the US presidential election.
The Prime Minister faced protests from all sides over plans to redeploy British forces to an area 25 miles south of Baghdad, freeing the US 24th Marine Expeditionary Force for an expected assault on the rebel stronghold of Fallujah.
A soldier from the Black Watch based in Iraq
Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is preparing to make a Commons statement tomorrow announcing that about 650 soldiers from the Black Watch will leave Basra and come under US command "for a few weeks".
The Sunday Telegraph understands, however, that the deployment is being resisted by Gen Sir Michael Walker, the Chief of the Defence Staff.
Nicholas Soames, the Conservative defence spokesman, also expressed concern yesterday and suggested that British troops were being moved for political reasons. "We need to watch the timing of all this," he said, "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.
"What alarms and awes me is the timing of this operation, particularly during Ramadan."
Mr Bush is facing an increasingly strong challenge from John Kerry, his Democrat opponent, in the November 2 presidential election. Some recent polls have put them neck and neck.
Iraq is one of the key issues in the election and Mr Bush is under pressure to counter Mr Kerry's charge that it is only American soldiers who are suffering high casualty levels in Iraq and that other countries' armed forces should be sharing more of the burden.
In one of their recent televised debates, Mr Kerry told Mr Bush: "We [the US] are 90 per cent of the casualties and 90 per cent of the costs," effectively claiming that the President's frequent assertions that he had built a broad coalition were diplomatic fiction, not military reality.
Greater involvement around Baghdad by Britain, which has 9,000 troops in Iraq, compared with America's 130,000, would go some way to defusing Mr Kerry's charge.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said that any decision to assist Mr Bush would be highly contentious.
"Will Mr Blair decide to help Bush in the run-up to the election? If he does he will have to placate a House of Commons which is increasingly fractious about the absence of a clear exit strategy in Iraq.
"Why is Bush making this request now? If Blair says yes and Kerry is elected, then the first meeting between Blair and Kerry could be very interesting."
Anti-war Labour MPs were also quick to accuse the Prime Minister of endangering the lives of British troops.
Alice Mahon, the Labour MP for Halifax, said: "I think this could be to help President Bush.
"I think it is to flag up to the rest of the world that Bush has support and I just don't think we should be putting our troops in that sort of danger for political reasons."
Peter Kilfoyle, the former Labour defence minister, also claimed that the timing was linked to the US presidential election.
"This is obviously the Americans trying to show that the risks are being shared," he said. "What they want is to be able to be seen to have more support than they do have for their tactics and that is not on.
"Those of us who are opposed to the war are very alarmed by this. We are putting our troops in harm's way and subject to the vagaries of how the Americans do things."
Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, said he believed that the American election was a "sub-plot", but added: "I'm not going to discount that. I would not be surprised at anything this [US] administration did. But I don't think Tony Blair needs to show any more support for Bush. He has already done that in spades."
Gen Walker, the most senior officer in the Armed Forces, is said to be concerned that the Army should not be "bounced" into sending troops into Baghdad simply because the Americans have sustained more casualties than the British.
A Ministry of Defence official said that the Chief of the Defence Staff and other senior officers were worried that deploying the Black Watch, which is the divisional reserve for southern Iraq, to Baghdad would leave British troops vulnerable to another uprising by insurgents.
A senior Army officer said: "There is a certain amount of concern that this is a politically driven military operation and that does not rest easily with soldiers.
"Soldiers accept that they have to undertake dangerous operations in war, they accept that they might be killed or injured, but it is completely unacceptable if they are being sent to Baghdad to help George Bush win the next election."
© Copyright 2004 Telegraph/UK