CHARLES Kennedy will today claim Tony Blair's pride is costing the lives of British troops in Iraq because bringing them home would mean accepting the war was a disaster.

In a hard-hitting conference speech, the Liberal Democrat leader will step up pressure on the Prime Minister to set a firm date for the withdrawal of 8,500 soldiers, as the security situation worsens.

For the first time, Mr Kennedy will say the Government must accept the British presence is now part of the problem because it is viewed by Iraqis as an occupying force.

He will warn peace will only come to Iraq when British soldiers are replaced by troops from nations untainted by support for the war.

Mr Kennedy will say: "The Prime Minister's pride should not get in the way of finding a solution for the people of Iraq.

"His blind support for George Bush is continuing to cost lives - Iraqi citizens and coalition soldiers.

"It's time he laid out before Parliament a proper, structured exit strategy for the phased withdrawal of British forces from Iraq.

"They have served there with distinction, courage and great skill. But Prime Minister, what people are asking is 'When can our troops come home?"

The Ministry of Defence is believed to have been ready to pull out the first British soldiers from Iraq as early as next month.

But that timetable was shattered on Monday, when British tanks blasted a hole in a prison wall in Basra to release two SAS soldiers later found in the hands of Iraqi militias. Iraqis pelted British tanks with stones and petrol bombs and the Iraqi government was forced to accept its new police force had been infiltrated by armed insurgents.

Yesterday, Defence Secretary John Reid again insisted the soldiers would remain until democracy was established, warning: "Democracy does not come easily and freedom has to be won."