/ 13 October 2006

UK troops worsen problems in Iraq

Britain’s top army commander said British troops in Iraq should be withdrawn soon because their presence was exacerbating security problems in the country, according to a British newspaper.

General Richard Dannatt also told the Daily Mail in an interview published on Friday that Britain’s Iraq venture was aggravating the security threat elsewhere in the world.

In unusually blunt comments for a serving senior officer, Dannatt said the troops should ”get … out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems”.

Britain, Washington’s main ally in Iraq, has around 7 000 soldiers deployed, mainly in the Shi’ite south.

The March 2003 US-led invasion to oust former president Saddam Hussein has come under heavy criticism, as the civilian death-toll mounts and British and US troops are increasingly in the firing line. Britain has lost 119 soldiers so-far.

Dannatt, who took over as chief of the general staff in August, suggested troops in Iraq had out-stayed their welcome.

”The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in. Whatever consent we may have had in the first place, may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance. That is a fact. 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.”

Dannatt appeared to be suggesting the presence of British and US troops in Iraq was fanning Islamic militancy — something British Prime Minister Tony Blair has consistently denied.

Post-war failings

Putting himself directly at odds with Blair and US President George Bush, the general criticised the post-invasion planning by the US-led coalition.

”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.”

He continued: ”The original intention was that we put in place a liberal democracy that was an exemplar for the region, was pro-West and might have a beneficial effect on the balance within the Middle East. That was the hope, whether that was a sensible or naive hope history will judge. I don’t think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition.”

US-led forces and the Iraqi government face a challenge both from insurgency and sectarian fighting between Shi’ites and Sunni Muslims that has brought the country close to civil war.

A spokesperson at Blair’s office issued a statement in response to the Dannatt interview that was echoed by the Ministry of Defence.

”It’s important that people remember that we are in Iraq at the express wish of the democratically elected Iraqi government, to support them under the mandate of a UN resolution,” the Downing Street statement said.

The opposition Conservatives’ defence spokesperson, however, welcomed the general’s intervention, while expressing surprise at his bluntness.

”We need urgent clarification now from ministers about whether there has been any change in the government’s position,” Liam Fox said in a statement.

Blair has insisted that British troops must remain in Iraq until the Iraqi government is able to take control of security.

Bush, however, said on Wednesday he was open to adjusting the US strategy in the country after two senior Republicans suggested there were alternatives to his policy, described by critics as ”stay-the-course”.

In the headline-grabbing interview, Dannatt appeared more upbeat about Britain’s mission in Afghanistan — the country’s other major deployment to a hostile zone — saying that he had ”more optimism” that ”we can get it right in Afghanistan”.

He also appeared to support a need to tackle militant Islam around the world.

”We can’t wish the Islamist challenge to our society away and I believe that the army both in Iraq and Afghanistan and probably wherever we go next, is fighting the foreign dimension of the challenge to our accepted way of life,” he said.

In a snapshot of the daily chaos plaguing Iraq, gunmen stormed a television station in Baghdad on Thursday and shot dead 11 staff in the biggest attack yet on media in the country.

Iraqi media organisations, funded by religious or political groups, are frequent targets for militant groups as attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents and sectarian death squads continue to convulse the country, killing an estimated 100 people a day. – Reuters