Blair's Tough Dilemma as US Asks for 4,000 More British Troops; WAR ON IRAQ: LONG CAMPAIGN FORCES ALLIES TO RETHINK NUMBERS

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Byline: PATRICK HENNESSY

TONY BLAIR flew back to Britain today facing his toughest decision of the war so far - whether to send more British troops to reinforce stretched coalition forces in Iraq.

Up to now the Prime Minister has insisted the UK has enough servicemen to "do the job" against Saddam Hussein, with about 45,000 now in the Gulf.

However, the United States today confirmed it is set to send another huge force of 120,000 more troops to bolster its personnel in Iraq.

Mr Blair and President George Bush are certain to have discussed troop levels at their summit at Mr Bush's Camp David retreat. But both men have refused to go into details about military planning.

It is thought the US would like Britain to supply around 4,000 more troops - a difficult total to achieve for the armed forces whose personnel are on duty all over the world as well as having to provide cover for striking firefighters at home.

The difficulties coalition forces have had in taking Basra in the south of Iraq have underlined the likely need for reinforcements. The city was originally planned to be secured by some British troops while others joined the US-led push towards Baghdad.

Mr Blair, who was chairing a meeting of his war cabinet this morning, acknowledged it would take time to loosen Saddam's grip.

"I've always known that it was likely to have tough and difficult moments and I do point out again we're a week into this and an awful lot has been achieved," he told Radio 4's Today programme.

"But you're not going to prise the grip of Saddam off the country when it's been there for over 20 years."

"When you've had a whole series of security services repressing the local people, it was never going to be a situation these people were simply going to give up power and go away."

In a diplomatic breakthrough, Mr Blair appeared to have secured a crucial new United Nations resolution to get large amounts of humanitarian aid into Iraq very soon.

The resolution to get the oil-for-food programme back and running again could be achieved as early as today or next week after Germany supported the British proposal.

Mr Blair said after meeting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York there was "every chance of that happening within the next 24 hours".

He added: "That will be the UN door open again. I think that will make a big difference to attitudes all the way round."

He said the future of post-Saddam Iraq should be in the hands of Iraqis and not the Americans or the British. He said: "Now what we need to do is to try and make sure that we have as representative a system of government as possible and that's something we need to work out with the UN. …