/ 13 October 2006

UK army chief says troops should leave Iraq

Britain’s army chief said the presence of British troops in Iraq was exacerbating security problems on the ground and they should be withdrawn soon.

In bluntly worked comments to the Daily Mail newspaper, Chief of the General Staff General Richard Dannatt criticised post-war planning for Iraq and said the presence hurt British security globally.

The remarks could have political fallout on both sides of the Atlantic. The war has hurt the popularity of Prime Minister Tony Blair and is a major issue for United States President George Bush’s allies in congressional elections next month.

Although in later interviews Dannatt denied any split with Blair, he may have added to the storm by warning that overstretching the British army in Iraq could ”break it”.

Britain should ”get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems”, he told the Mail.

”I don’t say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq, but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them,” he said.

”I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war-fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning.”

The remarks were seized upon by anti-war campaigners. Reg Keys, whose son died in Iraq, said: ”Here you have an officer, at last, who is prepared to speak how it is, and not be a mouthpiece for the delusions of a prime minister.”

In Basra, where most of Britain’s 7 200 troops are based, locals told Reuters they agreed it was time for them to go.

”In the last three years, people started to look at these troops in a different way. They simply hate these troops,” said school teacher Fatima Ahmed (35). ”I think the general’s statement is aimed at preparing an appropriate atmosphere for these troops to suddenly withdraw.”

”These troops, especially those in the south, have become a nightmare, which terrifies children and women,” said shop owner Ali Abdul-Abbas (31). ”They have to leave before a catastrophe occurs.”

Political storm

Hours after the interview appeared, Dannatt made radio and television appearances to calm the political storm. He said his remarks were taken out of context but did not deny them.

”It was never my intention to have this hoo ha, which people have thoroughly enjoyed overnight, trying to suggest there is a chasm between myself and the prime minister,” he told BBC radio.

He insisted he was not proposing an immediate withdrawal, and that winding down the presence in Iraq was already policy.

”I’m a soldier. We don’t do surrender. We don’t pull down white flags. We’re going to see this through,” he said.

But he added: ”I’ve got an army to look after, which is going to be successful in current operations. But I want an army in five years’ time and 10 years’ time. Don’t let’s break it on this one. Let’s keep an eye on time.”

Britain has launched a massive new operation in Afghanistan this year, and commanders have acknowledged that they had hoped they could reduce their force in Iraq faster.

Generals have said they now hope to cut their force in Iraq in half by the middle of next year. They have turned over control of two of the four provinces they patrol to Iraqis.

”We’re going to complete that process and … the number of troops deployed there will reduce,” Dannatt said.

Lower ambitions

Dannatt said ambitions had to be lowered and were now mainly focused on keeping Iraq from splitting up.

”We had high hopes,” he told the BBC. ”It has proved more difficult for a whole variety of reasons and therefore we’re pressing on to get the best result we can. And it may not be that result that we originally wanted to get.”

Blair’s spokesperson said the prime minister still had confidence in Dannatt. His office and the British foreign and defence ministries said British troops were in Iraq at the behest of an elected government there.

US military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said: ”Britain is an important ally. The withdrawal of troops is something that is discussed in open forums in democracies but we are not going to make any comments.”

In Iraq on Thursday, a bomb in a police station in Hilla killed a police colonel and five others. The bodies of 14 construction workers were found in an orchard near a town 40km north of Baghdad. One police officer and eight insurgents were reported killed in clashes in Mosul. — Reuters