British general's remarks spur Iraq debate
Gen. Richard Dannatt called for a withdrawal of British troops, saying they are exacerbating Iraq's security woes.
LONDON AND WASHINGTON
A vigorous debate about how quickly Britain can pull out of Iraq has erupted following an unprecedented intervention from the head of the British armed forces, who said troops should leave soon because their presence was doing more harm than good.Skip to next paragraph
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In remarks that made leaders on both sides of the Atlantic sit up and take notice, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt told a newspaper that Britain should get its 7,200 soldiers out of the south of the country "sometime soon" because "our presence exacerbates the security problems."
Though General Dannatt subsequently denied any rift between himself and Prime Minister Tony Blair, his original comments flatly contradicted his political masters, who have stressed they will stay the course in Iraq and insist they are shoring up rather than undermining security there.
Military experts say the general, appointed only in August, was voicing the fears and frustrations of soldiers and officers alike who face an increasingly fraught mission with no end in sight.
"We are in danger of failing in the long term because we don't have enough troops," says former army major Charles Heyman. "There's no doubt that Dannatt is right – he's reflecting what he's being told throughout the Army: that there aren't enough of us there. The British army is fully extended, and there are no more troops to send anywhere."
Although Dannatt rushed to qualify his remarks in a succession of interviews, the impression remained of a general deeply concerned about troop morale, an overstretched army, and the possibility of failure in Iraq.
Tellingly, he added in one radio interview that although he was determined to see the Iraq mission through, he didn't want it to "break" his army. "I want an army in five years time and 10 years time. Don't let's break it on this one. Let's keep an eye on time."
Dannatt's remarks may not have been popular with political leaders, but blogs and Internet postings have found British soldiers overwhelming applauded their commander. One on-line poll found 76 percent thought he had been "absolutely right" to speak out.
"He's looking after concerns of his soldiers," says Amyas Godfrey, a former army captain who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
"In the broad context, the British presence may be fueling the [security] situation," says Godfrey, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, "but a lot of good is being done too." Soldiers are taking on the roles of policemen, civil engineers, construction workers, community officers, and diplomats, he notes.
But while top British and US military officials have – at least in private – voiced concern about the situation in Iraq, Dannatt is the first active-duty general on either side of the Atlantic to go so far publicly.
Privately, senior US military officials admit that the window is closing on the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to rein in paramilitary death squads and sectarian violence. Political leaders have taken up the mantra – notably senior Republicans among them – who say US Iraq policy can no longer be to "stay the course."