British troops will remain in Iraq for years not months, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said.
UK troops have years of patrols in Iraq to look forward to
"I can't say whether it's going to be 2006/2007," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Mr Straw insisted that if coalition forces were to pull out from Iraq now, there would be a security vacuum and lives would be put at risk.
He was speaking after Tony Blair made a
surprise visit to UK troops Iraq on his way home from a Christmas break.
Mr Straw said he could "not give an exact timetable" of when British troops would leave the region.
Subject to there being a "status of forces agreement" between the new sovereign government of Iraq and the US/UK coalition, it was a "fact" that troops would be there for years, he said.
"It is not going to be months for sure," Mr Straw added.
He compared the situation in Iraq with the involvement of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan who for two and a half years have been split between fighting terrorism in the south east of the country and operating as a stabilising force.
"Those thousands of troops within that time period have played a very important role in providing a degree of stability and security which has then enabled the political process to take place," said Mr Straw.
"And that's exactly the kind of situation we want to see replicated in Iraq.
"If we were suddenly to pull out, there would be unquestionably be a security vacuum that would not only put lives at risk and cause a loss of life, but would also be a setback for the political process."
Seven month deadline
The foreign secretary said he had no reason to believe that the 1 July target for handing over power to the Iraqi authorities would not be met.
"To have the prospect of a representative semi-democratic and then democratic government in Iraq is an astonishing prospect when you think where we were this time last year."
During his flying visit to Basra on Sunday, Mr Blair said that if Britain had backed down from dealing with Iraq, it would have been unable to deal with other rogue states.
He told UK troops there they fought for a "noble cause" toppling Saddam Hussein and normality was slowly returning.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed two UK soldiers were killed in a car accident in Iraq on 1 January, bringing the number of British deaths since the beginning of hostilities last March to 55.
Former Armed Forces Minister Doug Henderson said Mr Straw's comments bore out anti-war MPs' warnings that troops could become entrenched in Iraq.
Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, director of the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the only Mr Straw's suggestion that troop levels would stay the same until 2007.
He told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "If you make a commitment to keep troops there at the same level for a long time, it doesn't encourage other people to help.
"It also doesn't encourage the Iraqis to make best speed to take over as many functions as they can."
With the Conservatives raising fears of more burdens on troops, Rear Admiral Cobbold said British troops faced "considerable stretch" but could still manage a long term garrison in Iraq.