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Iraq Transition

Blair backs UK army chief on Iraq

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he is in full agreement with comments the chief of the British army made in a newspaper interview about its deployment in Iraq.

Gen. Richard Dannatt was quoted by London's Daily Mail as calling for a pullout of British troops from Iraq "sometime soon because our presence exacerbates security problems."

Blair -- who said that he drew his conclusion about the interview after reading the full transcript of it -- said Friday some of Dannatt's remarks may have been taken out of context.

"Now, in terms of what he (Dannatt) was saying about Britain coming out of Iraq, he was saying exactly the same as we've all said. I know you guys like to portray it as if our policy is to remain in Iraq forever, it isn't. It's to withdraw," Blair told a press conference.

"We already are withdrawing from two provinces. We'll withdraw completely from Iraq as the Iraqi forces are able to handle their own security. In two provinces they are; in Basra they're not, which is why we will stay and get the job done," Blair said.

Dannatt denied attacking government policy, insisting he meant a phased pullout of British forces over two or three years.

"I said that we should pull out sometime soon, but that comment needs to be placed in the context of the campaign and the campaign plan," Dannatt said Friday, after the Daily Mail interview was published.

Comments 'sensationalized'

Dannatt, speaking in an interview with ITN, said "one or two comments" were "plucked" out of an "extensive" and wide-ranging interview and placed in a story he thought was "sensationalized" and overblown.

In remarks on the British Defense Ministry Web site, Dannatt said what Blair emphasized in Scotland.

He said Operation Sinbad -- a security and reconstruction effort in Basra -- "is trying to make Basra better and a lot of British soldiers are doing a really good job. In that regard, their presence is helping. But there are other parts where our mere presence does exacerbate and violence results."

However, he said, "that is not a reason for us to leave."

"I am on record publicly saying we're standing shoulder to shoulder with the Americans. I am on the record from a speech three weeks ago saying that I'm planning force packages in Iraq through 2007 into 2008. I'm a soldier -- we don't do surrender, we don't pull down white flags. We will remain in southern Iraq until the job is done. We're going to see this through."

Dannatt, who took over as the Army's chief of general staff in August, had been quoted in the newspaper as saying that the U.S.-led coalition's plan to establish a democracy in Iraq that would be an "exemplar for the region" was unlikely to happen.

"That was the hope. Whether that was a sensible or naive hope, history will judge," he said. "I don't think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition."

But with the country edging nearer to civil war -- if not already immersed in it -- Dannatt said that the strategy for implementing an Iraqi democracy was ill-prepared.

"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 said.

Now, he said, Britain has essentially overstayed its welcome in Muslim Iraq.

"The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in," he said, noting that was a far cry from being invited into the country. "Whatever consent we may have had in the first place may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance."

Blair said, "I suspect this was an interview with the Daily Mail that went on for about one-and-a-half hours in which he (Dannatt) was mainly talking about Afghanistan, and in which I suspect some of his remarks, as he was suggesting himself this morning, were somewhat taken out of context."

Echoed comments

Dannatt said his criticism of post-war planning in Iraq and his concerns about troops being stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan merely echoed comments already aired by retired senior officials.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said Dannatt's appearance of backing off from his earlier remarks gave the impression he had been reprimanded by Blair's government.

But he said the comments would nevertheless come as a major blow to Blair's authority at a time when the prime minister's support for British involvement in Iraq is hurting his popularity.

In the Daily Mail interview, Dannatt said that Britain's continued presence in Iraq had made the country less secure.

Britain should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates security problems," he told the newspaper in an interview published Thursday.

"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."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said after reviewing transcripts of Dannatt's interviews, "The comment was taken out of context and his general point was that, you know, when your work is done you hand over authority to the Iraqis."

"The Iraqis have said that they want continued presence, and they have also made it clear that when they think that they are going to be capable of assuming full control for various areas, they are eager and willing to do so," Snow said.

U.S. strategy under review

The comments by Dannatt came as the top U.S. general acknowledged that the U.S. strategy in Iraq was under review.

Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN the overall Iraq strategy was under review, including the linchpin of U.S. exit strategy -- relying on Iraqi forces to take up the fight. (Full story)

"Are those assumptions still valid? If they are OK, then how are we doing in getting to where we are supposed to be going?" Pace said. "If we're getting there, how do we reinforce that? If we're not, what should we change?

Pace's candid comments came a day after Gen. George Casey, the head of U.S. troops in Iraq, met with President Bush, whose Iraq policy is being questioned by key members of his own party.

Pace said he and the other joint chiefs were debriefing commanders just back from the front lines, including one colonel recognized as a rising star and creative thinker -- Col. H.R. McMaster, the author of 1997 book "Dereliction of Duty," considered the seminal work on the military's responsibility during Vietnam to confront its civilian bosses when strategy was not working.

Meanwhile, the other key aspect of U.S. strategy -- getting the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq to form a "unity government" -- also appears to be unraveling.

Bitter debate is raging among Iraqi politicians over a just-passed law that would allow the creation of semi-autonomous federal regions, something the Sunnis see as a step toward partition, with Kurds getting the North, the Shiites the south and the Sunnis isolated without oil in the central part of the country. (Full story)

Gen. Richard Dannatt waits Friday to give media interviews at the Ministry of Defence in London.


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


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