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Blair 'agrees' with UK army chief

BBC | October 13 2006

Tony Blair has said he agrees with "every word" the new head of the British Army said on the Iraq war.

The Daily Mail quoted General Sir Richard Dannatt as saying he thought UK troops "exacerbated" security problems and should withdraw "sometime soon".

Mr Blair said transcripts of later radio interviews showed Sir Richard was saying "the same as we all are".

He said they wanted to exit Iraq "when the job is done", and to remove troops when no longer needed in certain areas.

In the Daily Mail interview, Sir Richard, who took on his role in August, said UK troops should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems".

And he said planning for what happened after the initial military offensive was "poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning".

He later told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that when he talked about pulling out of Iraq "sometime soon", he meant "when the mission is substantially done, we should leave".

And he said the view that the presence of UK troops exacerbates the problems was "not right across the country", but in parts of it.

The intention was "particularly to speak up for what is right for the Army," he said. "That is my job. That is my constituency".

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner said Sir Richard's remarks were little different from what other officers had been saying in private.

But the comments had given added urgency to finding an early and effective exit strategy, our correspondent said.

In Basra, Maj Gen Ali Hammadi, the Iraqi security co-ordinator, has told BBC's Newsnight that if the British stopped arrest operations in the city, the level of violence there would drop by 80%.

'Proper context'

Speaking in St Andrews at the end of talks on Northern Ireland, the prime minister said the reason the government had been able to so far give up two provinces to Iraqi control was "precisely because the job has been done there".

He refused to be drawn on whether he agreed with quotes from Sir Richard published in the Daily Mail, saying only that later TV and radio interviews given by the general were more in context.

On the transcripts of those interviews Mr Blair said: "I agree with every word of it."

"He sets in proper context what he is actually saying. What he is saying about wanting the British forces out of Iraq is precisely the same as we're all saying. Our strategy is to withdraw from Iraq when the job is done."

Mr Blair said when Sir Richard talked about the troops' presence exacerbating problems in Iraq, he thought he was "absolutely right".

"I've said the same myself, in circumstances where the Iraqis are ready to take over control of areas and we're still there."

In places like Basra, the presence of British troops was still "absolutely necessary", he said.

Mr Blair told the press conference he had received a "report" about the Daily Mail article on Thursday night, and Sir Richard was "plainly not" saying that troops should be withdrawn from Iraq now.

Iraqi response

A spokesman for the Iraqi president said the departure of multi-national troops now "would be a disaster".

Iraq's ambassador to Britain, Dr Salah al-Shaikhly, said British soldiers were close to completing their mission.

"You've done marvellous in terms of the development, you've done marvellously in terms of keeping the security," he said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the United States had sought clarification on Sir Richard's comments.

"What he said is that 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."

Mr Blair said he "suspected" Sir Richard had given a long interview with the Daily Mail, and that some of his comments had been taken out of context.


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