By Ian Johnston
The Defence Secretary, John Hutton, is threatening to pull troops out of Iraq by the end of the year unless the Iraqi government gives them protection from prosecution, it was reported.
The UN mandate for their presence expires on 31 December and no explicit agreement has been reached with Iraq to stop troops from being prosecuted if they kill someone, even in self-defence, after this date. About 4,000 British soldiers are in Iraq. It is expected that most will have left by mid-2009.
Mr Hutton was quoted by The Daily Telegraph as saying: "I won't hesitate to pull them out. They have to be protected and the way things stand at the moment they will not be."
The US and Iraq reached an agreement on legal safeguards for American troops but only after much negotiation.
The British Ministry of Defence said troops retained the "the inherent right" to defend themselves, with lethal force where appropriate.
Meanwhile, five private security guards working for Blackwater Worldwide in Iraq have been indicted in the US in connection with the shootings of 17 Iraqis in 2007. A sixth guard was in plea negotiations with prosecutors.