Army chief defends Iraq comments
BBC | October 13 2006
The head of the British army has defended his call for UK troops to withdraw from Iraq "sometime soon".
General Sir Richard Dannatt told the BBC he aimed to "speak up for what is right for the Army" but denied a "chasm" with government.
The Chief of the General Staff told the Daily Mail the presence of UK troops "exacerbates the security problems".
Downing Street said troops were in Iraq "at the express wish" of the Iraqi government and under a UN mandate.
Meanwhile, anti-war campaigners have welcomed Sir Richard's comments and praised him for speaking out.
Sir Richard told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme his comments in the newspaper interview about Iraq "were neither substantially new or substantially newsworthy".
"It was never my intention to have this hoo-ha which people have thoroughly enjoyed overnight in trying to suggest there is a chasm between myself as head of the Army and the prime minister or between myself as head of the Army and the secretary of state for defence," he said.
Sir Richard also explained what he meant about pulling out of Iraq "sometime soon".
"Given that we've been in Iraq for some three and half years now, quite a long length of time, and that's put a fair pressure on ourselves - as indeed it's putting a pressure on our coalition partners - then when the mission is substantially done we should leave," he said.
He added: "We don't want to be there another two, three, four, five years. We've got to think about this in terms of a reasonable length of time."
Sir Richard added that UK troops "were making progress", and out of four provinces they had looked after in the south east, two had been handed over to Iraqi control.
He said this and progress within the remaining two provinces meant "already our responsibilities are much reduced".
He said the view that the presence of UK troops "exacerbates" the problems was "not right across the country", but in parts of it.
For example he said a lot of British soldiers were "doing a really good job" in Basra and trying to improve the situation.
He added: " In that regard their presence is helping - but there are other parts where our mere presence does exacerbate and because we're there, we're attacked," he said.
The remarks had been part of a "general background interview" authorised by the Defence Secretary Des Browne, he added.
In his Daily Mail interview, Sir Richard, who took on his role in August, also said planning for what happened after the initial successful war military offensive was "poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning".
He said: "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."
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said Britain had "a clear strategy" and worked with international partners "in support of the democratically elected government of Iraq, under a clear UN mandate".
And Downing Street issued a short statement in response to the general's comments.
It said: "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."
Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, called such an intervention by a senior military figure "unprecedented" and said the government had an "overwhelming obligation" to listen to him.
Sir Menzies also said on Radio 4's Today programme: "Has not the government's position been undermined? And when he says 'soon' in relation to Britain withdrawing should that not now be measured in a matter of months rather than years?"
Sir Richard has received praise for coming forward.
Major General Patrick Cordingly, who commanded the Desert Rats during the 1991 Gulf War, said: "I think it is a very brave thing for him to say. I do agree. I think there comes a time when you have got to let Iraq get on and look after its own security."
Rose Gentle, whose soldier son was killed in Iraq, said: "I'm just really delighted that Sir Richard Dannatt has stood up and spoken out. He is protecting our boys.
"We have been saying for two years this needed to happen and I think military families have done a good bit."
There are currently more than 7,000 British soldiers in Iraq, based largely in Basra in the south of the country. Since the invasion in 2003, 119 British troops have been killed, most of them in southern Iraq.
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