UK's Brown hints at asylum for Iraq interpreters

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LONDON, Oct 7 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised today to help Iraqis who had worked with British forces in a sign he may soon offer asylum for interpreters who have been hunted down by militants.

Brown told BBC television that a statement on Iraq which he will give to parliament on Monday would include ''what we can do to improve both the security of our military forces and those who help us on the ground in Basra''.

He also indicated it would give a longer-term view of Britain's presence in Iraq, after he announced cuts of 500 more troops during a flying visit there last week.

Threats on the lives of interpreters have led to calls for Britain to help them, including from serving members of the military, who say London has a moral obligation to assist them.

Brown ordered a study into how Britain can protect its interpreters after news reports that several had been killed by militants targeting them for working with British forces.

One interpreter who personally handed a plea for help to Brown's predecessor Tony Blair during a visit to Iraq earlier this year was sent a letter by Blair's staff telling him he could not apply for asylum unless he reached Britain, and suggesting he study British immigration rules on a Web site.

The Sun newspaper reported on Saturday that Brown would offer asylum for interpreters and their families. Brown's Downing Street office would not comment, and a Foreign Office spokeswoman said the issue was under consideration.

Brown flew to Iraq last week and announced that 1,000 British troops would return home by year's end. But he was criticised after it emerged that half of those troop cuts had already been announced and a quarter had already gone home.

Opposition Conservatives said he had promised to make any announcements about force cuts in parliament and called the trip a publicity stunt.

The visit came amid intense speculation that Brown was about to call a general election, something he has now ruled out.

Brown defended his visit and said his statement on tomorrow 01000 hrs ist would be about the longer term, rather than just troop levels for the rest of this year.

''I had to go to Basra and indeed to Baghdad as well to see for myself on the ground. I think people would have found it very strange if I had made a statement on Iraq without having had the chance to see on the ground what was happening.'' REUTERS JK RK1728

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