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Blair Rejects Calls to Pull Iraq Troops

AP | January 24, 2007

LONDON -- Lawmakers attacked Prime Minister Tony Blair's Iraq policy on Wednesday in their first major debate since 2004 on the invasion, but the British leader skipped the session and rejected calls to withdraw troops by October.

Blair chose not to attend a parliamentary debate dissecting Iraq policy, sidestepping the spotlight on the deeply unpopular war. But before the session began, he said an opposition Liberal Democrats proposal to pull troops out was irresponsible.

"That would send the most disastrous signal to the people that we are fighting in Iraq. It's a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is actually deeply irresponsible," Blair said during his weekly appearance in the House of Commons. He left before the debate began.

Blair said he would report to lawmakers on future strategy following the completion of Operation Sinbad, a joint British and Iraqi mission targeting police corruption and militia influence in the southern city of Basra.

As lawmakers debated policy for several hours, 50 protesters lined a frost-covered square outside Parliament, calling for coalition forces to withdraw.

Campaigners held placards that read, "Time To Go" and "U.K.-U.S.A., Genocidal Psychopaths."

"There is worldwide condemnation of this war, there is worldwide condemnation of the strategy behind this war and the crazy thinking which leads inexorably to yet more wars," rebel Labour lawmaker Jeremy Corbyn said during the debate.

George Galloway, a former Labour lawmaker expelled in 2003 after he urged British soldiers not to fight in Iraq, said the invasion had failed to bring democracy to Iraqis -- despite a series of elections.

Britain and the U.S. installed "a group of warlords in Baghdad" bent on settling sectarian scores, Galloway said. "It's not a government, it's Martin Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York,'" he said.

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, opening the debate for the government, said Operation Sinbad offered the prospect of a "turning point for Iraq, hopefully in the near future."

She said coalition forces aimed to hand over responsibilities for all 18 Iraqi provinces by November and that military commanders estimated British-controlled Maysan and Basra would be transferred to local security in the spring.

Britain's Defense Ministry and Blair's Downing Street office said they could not give a specific date for the transfer of the two southern Iraqi provinces.

Treasury chief Gordon Brown, who is likely to succeed Blair by September, said he hoped several thousand British soldiers would be withdrawn by December.

Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell called for a withdrawal.

"It is no longer reasonable or legitimate to ask our armed forces to carry the burden any longer," Campbell said. "It is time to go."

The debate is the first to be held on government time -- and not as part of Westminster sessions allocated for opposition parties -- for three years, but did not include a vote for a change in British policy.

William Hague, foreign affairs spokesman for the main opposition Conservatives, said that by failing to attend, Blair showed he preferred the "mentality of the bunker to the open thinking of debate."

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