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.
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."
Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, chairman of the armed services committee, said this month after a trip to Baghdad that "a change of course" would be on the agenda if the rising violence is not quelled soon. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine seconded Mr. Warner's concerns, saying that "staying the course is neither an option nor a plan."
On Friday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement jumping on Dannatt's comments, saying his conclusions mirror those of "many American generals and the partially declassified National Intelligence Estimate on Terrorism." Ms. Pelosi appeared to be referring to a number of retired generals who recently backed the estimate's findings that the Iraq war is hurting the broader war on terrorism.
An accelerated British withdrawal from Iraq would deprive America of its most steadfast ally on the most perilous frontline in the "war on terror."
But an early pullout remains unlikely, for all Dannatt's misgivings: Tony Blair has pledged to withdraw only when Iraqi forces can handle the wretched security situation, as has Gordon Brown, the man most likely to succeed him when he steps down in the middle of next year.
The official line is that the troops are there under a UN mandate and at the behest of a democratically elected government. Iraqi leaders say the troops are essential to preserve security, and many analysts are skeptical that rapid withdrawal would remove the catalyst for violence.
Michael O'Hanlon, an expert in military affairs at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that Dannatt's remarks are "at least a small blow to the [Bush] administration's policy," but adds: "I also think there are holes in this argument that if we left, things would get better."
Yet some military experts believe Dannatt's view may ultimately prove too hard to ignore if things go from bad to worse in Iraq.
"If his assessment is right and we are doing more harm than good, then shouldn't we change the policy?" asks Lord Tim Garden, a former assistant chief of the defense staff, adding that the general was giving "a totally accurate reflection of the situation as he sees it."
"Certainly the defense ministry might be relatively relaxed that this will move on the debate about an earlier exit for British troops, because they [ministry officials] are feeling the strain and worried about failure," he adds.
Dannatt's big fear is that the formidable demands on the British army in both Iraq and Afghanistan are stretching the force to its limits. Some military chiefs understood – incorrectly as it turns out – that agreeing to spearhead the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as Britain has done this year, might enable Britain to relinquish some of its duties in Iraq back to the Americans.
Dannatt has been decorated for bravery during a long military career, but even by his standards, his bluntness was courageous. Generals meddling in politics are normally frowned on in mature, sedate democracies.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the prime minister sacks him," says Heyman.