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Home >> World
UPDATED: 10:33, October 15, 2006
British army chief calls for withdrawal from Iraq 'soon'
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LONDON:Britain's army chief, who set off a political storm by calling for troops to be withdrawn from Iraq "soon," said on Friday he meant a phased withdrawal over two or three years, and denied that he was attacking government policy.

General Richard Dannatt gave a series of damage-control interviews after newspapers ran front-page stories interpreting his earlier remarks to The Daily Mail as a blast at Prime Minister Tony Blair's policy.

"It's important that people remember that we are in Iraq at the express wish of the democratically elected Iraqi Government," a spokesman for Blair's office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Blair's official spokesman told reporters in Scotland, where Blair is involved in Northern Ireland talks, that the general had the prime minister's full support.

But Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said Dannatt's position was "diametrically different" from government policy. If Dannatt says "soon," Campbell added, "should that not now be measured in a matter of months rather than years?"

Not so, Dannatt said on Friday morning, insisting Britain stood "shoulder to shoulder with the Americans, and their timing and our timing are one and the same."

"We'll probably reduce our soldiers over the course of the next year or two or three let's wait and see. That's what I mean by sometime soon," Dannatt said in an interview with Sky News.

"We don't do surrender. We don't pull down white flags. We're going to see this through," Dannatt said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp radio.

Britain has not set a timetable for the departure of its 7,500 troops from Iraq, but it has handed over security responsibilities in two provinces to Iraqi forces and is preparing to do the same in Maysan province.

Dannatt said his criticism of post-war planning in Iraq as "poor," and his concerns about troops being stretched with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, had been voiced by others. Retired senior officers have raised those concerns, but hearing it from a serving officer at Dannatt's level carried much more weight.

"The head of the British Army is saying what we have been saying for years, that the invasion was a mistake, that we're making the situation worse, and that we should get out," said John Rees, a founder of the Stop the War Coalition, which organized mass marches in London before the invasion.

Since March 2003, 119 British soldiers have died in Iraq.

Divisions over the war led to the resignation of two members of Blair's Cabinet and severely dented the prime minister's popularity. Memoirs of Home Secretary David Blunkett published this week claimed that Treasury chief Gordon Brown, Blair's likely successor, supported the invasion only because he feared he would otherwise be fired.

Dannatt said his interview with the Daily Mail was mainly about Afghanistan. The newspaper declined to release a full text of the interview.

"It was certainly not my intention in a very general background interview... to have this hoo-ha which people have thoroughly enjoyed overnight and tried to suggest that there is a chasm between myself as head of the army and the prime minister," Dannatt said.

The Daily Mail, which released its interview on its website on Thursday night, quoted Dannatt as saying that while Iraqis might have welcomed coalition forces following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the good will has evaporated.

The British military should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems," the Mail quoted him as saying.

"Whatever consent we may have had in the first place" from the Iraqi people "has largely turned to intolerance," he was quoted as saying.

The Defence Ministry responded to the Daily Mail interview by saying: "We have a clear strategy in Iraq. We are there with our international partners in support of the democratically elected government of Iraq, under a clear UN mandate."

While insisting that Britain would stay the course in Iraq, Dannatt told the BBC: "We need to keep thinking about time because time is against us. Because time is money, time is particularly soldiers and soldiers lives, and we cannot go on forever."

Dannatt said British and American planning for postwar Iraq was poor, "probably based more on optimism than sound planning."

Source: China Daily

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