DESPITE mounting pressure to pull servicemen out of Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair has written to the Andover Advertiser explaining his decision to keep troops, including those from Tidworth, Bulford and Larkhill, in the Middle East:

"There will, I know, be many Andover Advertiser readers with family or friends serving in Iraq.

"This newspaper has strong and long-standing links with the Army. Local regiments attached to 1 Mechanised Brigade who are at present in southern Iraq, have their headquarters in Tidworth, Bulford and Larkhill. And, of course, they recruit a great many men and women from this area.

"So I know these will be difficult and worrying times for many of you. Worrying because you are concerned with their well-being and safety. But worrying also because of these reports about the conduct of our forces in Iraq.

"It is because of these worries and the damage to the reputation of our forces that I wanted to write in to the Andover Advertiser.

"These reports and allegations - serious as some may be - should not obscure the superb work that our forces are doing in Iraq.

"I believe passionately that our country can be proud of what they are achieving and also how they are achieving it. And they should be proud themselves of what they are doing. "It is important to remember that there is no evidence at all of systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British forces. Important, too, to note that we had already acted on concerns and criticism - on, for example, the hooding of prisoners - long before such criticisms surfaced.

"For where there are allegations of cruelty or misconduct against our forces, they are always investigated. Where these allegations have substance, action is always taken to stop such abuse, and where necessary, against those responsible.

"Our forces would not only expect this to happen but want it. They are appalled, too, at any suggestion of abuse or misconduct. They know that we came to Iraq to put a stop to the mistreatment of prisoners and civilians alike. "But they also know that against this handful of past cases - proven or alleged - must be set the superb work of thousands of British servicemen and women.

"There are around 8,000 of our servicemen and women currently serving in Iraq. Over the last year, thousands more have served there.

"The overwhelming majority of our forces have acted with outstanding courage, professionalism and compassion while in Iraq.

"Their work has immensely improved the lives of the local population - first in liberating them from a cruel and inhuman dictatorship and then helping them rebuild their country after the incompetence and corruption of Saddam's regime.

"Schools across southern Iraq have been rebuilt and re-opened. Bridges have been repaired. Power and water supplies have been restored - in some cases after years of disruption.

"Our forces are training local police officers to keep and restore order. All these achievements are improving the quality of life of the Iraqi people. They are also giving Iraq the chance of a stable, prosperous and peaceful future - exactly what the vast majority of the people of Iraq want.

"But these are not just my words. They are also the words of the Iraqis themselves.

"The Iraqi Foreign Minister himself, last month, warmly praised the efforts of the British troops in his country. "Hoshyar Zebari thanked our forces for the job they are doing in his country.

"He said: "We are very proud of them and the British people should be very proud of them."

"Despite the continuing difficulties, setbacks and dangers, this message would be echoed by many Iraqis, by their community leaders and by ordinary people on the streets.

"They are right. We should be immensely proud of the efforts of our forces. And grateful, as well, for the way they are going about a very difficult job."