British troops will still be in Iraq on New Year's Day 2005, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has said.
British troops have another year of patrols to look forward to
But Mr Hoon said their role would change during 2004 from occupying Iraq to helping new Iraqi bodies bring stability to the country.
He admitted that the US-led invasion of the Gulf state had encouraged an influx of foreign terrorists.
But he said the long-term benefits of toppling Saddam Hussein outweighed the short-term problems.
Asked on BBC Radio 4's The World at One how many troops would be in Iraq next year, Mr Hoon replied: "I don't want to speculate precisely about numbers. I would
expect to see the role of British forces change, subtly perhaps.
"I'm sure we will still be there assisting Iraqis in providing security. But
instead of in a sense being legally an occupying power we will be there in
support of a transitional government, assisting that government on the way, we
hope, towards democracy."
Mr Hoon said he believed the armed services could cope with having continuing large numbers in Iraq, and he was bullish about the target to hand over power to a transitional Iraqi government by June would be met.
Asked about the post-war security situation, Mr Hoon said: "I accept that there has been a short-term impact, a short-term response by some terrorist organisations, perhaps even to send individuals to Iraq to attack coalition forces.
"On the other hand what we have demonstrated in military action against Iraq
is that we are determined to see the decisions of the international community
upheld. Countries like Iraq cannot any longer simply ignore the decisions of the
United Nations because they know that this time we mean business."
Mr Hoon said he was sure the Iraq Survey Group would find evidence about weapons of
Asked whether he believed concrete evidence of weapons, and not just weapons
programmes, would be found, Mr Hoon said: "I'm still confident that we will
find concrete evidence...
"Saddam Hussein had months if not years in which to conceal the details of
his programmes in a country that he controlled absolutely."