Gordon Brown today rejected opposition calls for an early inquiry into the Iraq war.
As he made a statement in the Commons about the withdrawal of troops, the prime minister refused to go beyond a repetition of his broad commitment to an inquiry "once our troops come home".
But Brown did announce that the Ministry of Defence was spending £150m on more than 100 new all-terrain "Warthog" vehicles and that the memorial in Basra commemorating the 178 British servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Iraq will be brought to Britain when the operation is over.
Brown, who said that almost all British troops would leave Iraq by the end of July 2009 during a surprise visit to the country yesterday, told MPs that Iraq had made "very significant progress" since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
He said that from August next year fewer than 400 British troops would be left in Iraq. That was equivalent to what would be expected from a "normal defence relationship" with a country in the region.
Most of the remaining troops would be dedicated to naval training, Brown said.
In his response to Brown's statement, the Conservative leader, David Cameron, said that the government ought to "strike a realistic tone about what has and has not been achieved" in Iraq and remember that, for many Iraqis, conditions remained "dire".
For some time the government has been committed to setting up an inquiry into the Iraq war after the withdrawal of British troops. Cameron asked Brown for details of when this would happen, saying: "If we do not learn lessons from the mistakes of the past, then we are more likely to repeat them in the future."
Cameron also said that if Brown meant his promise about having no inquiry until all the troops were home literally, then, with a few hundred remaining, there "would be no inquiry for many, many years".
Brown did not clarify whether he would be willing to start an inquiry after July. Instead he just insisted that he would consider the matter "once our troops come home".
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Barack Obama, the US president-elect, was right when he described the war as "dumb" before the invasion in 2003. Clegg said that the Lib Dems were the only major party to oppose it.
"This was the single worst foreign policy decision for the last 50 years. It is time the government and the Conservatives held up their hands and said sorry to the British people for Iraq," he said.
There had to be a full public inquiry, he said. "The government must not be allowed to end this war as it began it: in secrecy and misdirection."