Top Brit General Sets Off Iraq Firestorm

Britain's new army chief Gen. Richard Dannatt speaks outside the Ministry of Defence in London, Friday Oct. 13, 2006, AP

Britain's army chief, who set off a political storm by calling for troops to be withdrawn from Iraq "soon," said Friday he meant a phased withdrawal over two or three years, and denied that he was attacking government policy.

Gen. Richard Dannatt gave a series of interviews after newspapers ran front-page stories interpreting his remarks published Thursday by The Daily Mail as a critique of Prime Minister Tony Blair's policy.

Dannatt said in the initial interview that the British military should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems."

On Friday morning, he insisted Britain stood stand "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.

In other developments in Iraq:

  • A British coroner ruled Friday that U.S. forces unlawfully killed a British television journalist in the opening days of the Iraq war, and called for prosecution of those responsible. Terry Lloyd's widow said U.S. forces "allowed their soldiers to behave like trigger-happy cowboys in an area in which there were civilians traveling."

  • At least 15 people were killed in attacks around Iraq on Friday, including the commander of a battalion of special Interior Ministry police and six women and two girls who were shot south of Baghdad. Two other teenage girls were kidnapped. The police commander was killed by a bomb placed under his desk or chair, apparently by someone who evaded security — a policeman from the brigade.

  • Iran's supreme leader on Friday accused the United States of promoting terrorism and religious division in Iraq. "The reality there (in Iraq) is occupiers who intervene in all Iraqi internal affairs," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told thousands of worshippers in Tehran.

    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 a third.

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

    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?"

    "Sir Richard has not just undermined the government policy, he's demolished it," Campbell added.

    John Rees, a founder of the Stop the War Coalition, which organized mass marches in London before the invasion, said: "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."

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

    Divisions over the war have led to the resignation of two members of Blair's Cabinet and severely dented the prime minister's popularity.

    Dannatt said his interview with the Daily Mail was mainly about Afghanistan.

    "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.

    "There isn't even a cigarette paper between myself and the prime minister" on Iraq, Dannatt said in the initial interview.

    The newspaper declined to release a full text of the interview.

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

    "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 Defense 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 U.N. mandate."

    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.

    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."
    • Alfonso Serrano

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