Britain says it could deploy combat troops near Baghdad to free up U.S. forces for counter-terrorism operations before Iraqi elections planned for January.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told parliament he expects a decision by mid-week on the U.S. request, after a report from a British military reconnaissance mission.

Mr. Hoon indicated a combat battalion, probably the Black Watch regiment of Scotland, could be moved northward from the relatively peaceful southeastern region where it is now headquartered.

British media report the Black Watch would take over patrol duties in some towns south of Baghdad, relieving U.S. Marines who could join the fight against terrorists in the Sunni triangle northwest of the capital.

Mr. Hoon played down speculation that the U.S. request was timed to give President Bush a boost in his re-election campaign against Senator John Kerry, who has complained that the United States is bearing 90 percent of the burden in the Iraq war.

"I want to make clear that the request is a military request. And although it is linked to elections, it is not linked to the U.S. elections but with efforts to create the best possible security situation in which to hold the Iraqi elections in January," emphasized Mr. Hoon.

The defense spokesman for the anti-war Liberal Democrat party, Paul Keetch, questioned Mr. Hoon on why the United States could not come up with the needed manpower itself.

"The United States currently has 130,000 military personnel in Iraq. Can the Secretary of State [for Defense] clarify whether the proposed deployment of some 650 extra British troops is purely for operational reasons? What are those reasons, and why specifically British forces? Why not other United States forces or other coalition forces used to working under U.S. control," he asked. "Are none of these available?"

Mr. Hoon said any deployment would be for purely military and tactical reasons, and it was obvious that Britain, as America's closest ally, would be the first choice for such an operation.

Other concerns still hang over a British deployment outside of southern Iraq.

Some military analysts predict British troops would be exposed to more attacks if they take a higher profile in backing up a U.S.-led counter-terrorism campaign. The experts also say the deployment would leave about 7,000 British troops in southern Iraq without sufficient reserves if pre-election violence flares up there.

More debate on the matter is expected Wednesday when Prime Minister Tony Blair makes his weekly appearance in parliament.