Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram caused the Government a fresh headache yesterday when he called for a national debate over Britain's continued presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Speaking only days after Army chief General Sir Richard Dannatt said troops had to "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems", his comments brought the Government's foreign policy in the Middle East under the spotlight once again.

The Minister came out in defence of Britain's top soldier, Sir Richard, saying he did not "overstep the mark" by giving a newspaper interview in which he said troops should be withdrawn from Iraq "sometime soon".

"That is the job of senior military commanders," he added. "They have got to tell the truth. They cannot hide the truth."

Mr Ingram suggested that comments made by Sir Richard, who became Chief of the General Staff in August, had been taken "out of context" and triggered a "media frenzy".

However, he continued: "We do need a national debate about what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Balkans and elsewhere.

"The point I am making is that in a democracy it is only right and proper that there is an open and mature national debate rather than a media feeding frenzy in which people's comments can be taken out of context."

Yesterday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said people had to be "constantly reminded" why British troops were in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Britain's mission came down to two words: "Defending democracies."

The spokesman added: "In both places we have democratically-elected governments under attack."

Over the weekend senior politicians rebuked Sir Richard.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett said Sir Richard's comments were a "constitutional" issue.

And former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown said Sir Richard should have resigned rather than "blurting out" his disagreement with official policy through the media.

Mr Ingram was speaking to journalists at the opening of a Nato intelligence gathering centre at RAF Molesworth near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

The top-secret facility will house more than 150 intelligence analysts from 26 Nato member nations.

It was opened by General James L. Jones, a former Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and Nato's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, John Colston, Nato's Assistant Secretary-General for Defence Policy and Planning, and Mr Ingram.

General Jones, a veteran of the Vietnam war, said the intelligence fusion centre would offer "360 degree" monitoring and pay particular attention to terrorism and the development of weapons of mass destruction.

He said it was the first centralised operation of its kind and would provide "much needed support" to Nato soldiers.

But he stopped short of criticising the quality of previous intelligence gathering either in relation to Iraq or terrorist groups.

The United States is the "framework" nation at the centre, and will supply half the staff.