“If they pull out it would be catastrophic for the people of Iraq and the cause of democracy and it would be a win for terrorists,” he told a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London.

Mr Blair vowed that the roughly 8,000 British troops would remain, saying: “We intend to stay with you for as long as you need us and as long as you want us.”

Blair accuses Iran

Mr Blair also warned Iran not to interfere in Iraq, saying his government suspected explosives used to kill British troops in the south of the country may have come from the across the border in the Islamic republic.

“There is no justification for Iran or any other country interfering in
Iraq,” he said.

But Mr Blair admitted there was no proof at present of such interference.

Prodi’s withdrawal plans

In Italy, opposition leader Romano Prodi promised a detailed timetable for pulling his country’s forces out of Iraq if he wins elections early next year, describing the US-led invasion as a “colossal error.”

“The day after I’ll win elections, I’ll set a detailed calendar for troop withdrawal,” Mr Prodi told the daily Corriere della Sera. “Italy’s sole commitment will be for reconstruction and aid.”

Referendum campaign

In Baghdad, campaigning for the planned referendum continued despite the violence, and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said he was confident of a high turnout on October 15.

“The experience of January 30 showed that attacks, even in the heart of Baghdad, have no effect on the running of the polls,” Mr Jaafari said, referring to the first general elections in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

“In some countries, even rain can cause abstentions. But the Iraqis have shown they can vote under gunfire and under attack,” Mr Jaafari told a news conference.

Many Sunni Arabs, who are believed to form the backbone of the insurgency, object to the draft constitution on the grounds its federalist principles will pave the way for the break-up of the country, handing oil-rich provinces to Kurds and Shiites.

Shiites main target

Hundreds of Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims have been killed in recent weeks following the declaration of “all-out war” against them by Al-Qaeda frontman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Thursday’s string of bombings and shootings included the deaths of five members of Iraq’s oil protection force along with the wounding of four others when their car hit a homemade bomb near the northern city of Kirkuk.

Iraqi police also shot dead two men who had attempted to flee in a car in the capital. The vehicle was later found to be rigged with explosives.

US security sweep

Elsewhere, thousands of US soldiers continued a sweep against Al-Qaeda fighters in western Iraq along the Euphrates Valley in what the military said was an attempt to cut off insurgent supply routes from neighbouring Syria.

“We have been taking out portions of bridges with precision strikes,” US military spokesman Major General Rick Lynch told a news conference in Baghdad.

“One of the vulnerabilities of this insurgency is freedom of movement.”

The US military is trying to improve security ahead of the referendum, scheduled to take place just four days before Saddam was due to stand trial for a 1982 Shiite massacre.

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