UK's Labour scarred by Iraq war-foreign minister

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BOURNEMOUTH, Sep 25 (Reuters) Foreign Secretary David Miliband said today that Britain's role in Iraq had scarred the government and divided the country and added that it was vital to stop the conflict spreading through the West Asia.

In his speech to the ruling Labour Party's annual conference, Miliband said the party had to learn lessons from ''the scars of 10 years in government'' and focus on new issues.

''The war in Iraq was divisive in our party and in our country.

It was a huge decision and the passion on all sides was sincere and understandable,'' he said.

''Whatever the rights and wrongs, and there have been both, we've got to focus on the future,'' he said.

Britain must continue to support the development of an effective Iraqi security force and keep its promise to Iraqis that they will have a stake in their country's future, he said.

''We need to work with all the neighbours of Iraq to reconcile Sunnis and Shias, to prevent that conflict first fragmenting the country and then spreading like a contagion across the Middle East,'' Miliband said.

Miliband's appointment in June by new Prime Minister Gordon Brown was widely seen as an attempt to draw a line under the foreign policies of Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, which angered and alienated many voters.

Miliband voted for the Iraq war but has said that he initially had reservations about it.

Britain has no fixed timetable for withdrawing its 5,500 troops from Iraq, but a rough schedule for reducing its force is emerging amid negotiations with Washington.

British defence officials say 10 percent of the troops will be withdrawn in the next six weeks. Brown is due to make a statement to parliament on Iraq early next month.

Referring to Britain's other main battlefield, Miliband urged the Afghan government to work with Pakistan in order to tackle terrorism on both sides of the border.

He also reaffirmed Britain's commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for ''urgent progress'' to address Israeli security and Palestinian rights.

In a wide-ranging speech, Miliband also defended the European Union as a key international institution and pledged that the issue of Britain's place in Europe would not divide the Labour party as it had the opposition Conservatives.

The government is coming under increasing pressure to hold a referendum on the latest European Union treaty. Britain's biggest-selling daily paper, the Sun, launched a campaign for a referendum at the start of the Labour conference, adding to the demands of trade unions and politicians from all parties.

Miliband said the treaty should be studied and passed by parliament, dashing hopes of a popular debate and a public vote.

REUTERS JK PM1905

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