Army chief says British troops should be pulled out of Iraq

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Tony Blair has received a public warning from the country's most senior military commander that the British presence in Iraq is threatening disaster there and in the UK.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, who took over as Chief of Staff six weeks ago, has warned the commitment to Iraq "exacerbates" problems faced by the UK in other parts of the world. He urged Mr Blair to give up his ambition to see a liberal democracy established in Iraq and settle for a "lower ambition", warning that British troops were not invited into Iraq and the time when they were welcome has passed.

He said: "Let's face it, the military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in. Whatever consent we may have had in the first place may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance. 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."

He also warned against a spiritual "vacuum" in the UK that he believes is posing a threat to a society no longer bound together by the Christian religion, and complained that the treatment of wounded soldiers in NHS hospitals breaks the unwritten "covenant" between the nation and its armed forces.

His attack - one of the most outspoken commentaries on government policy to be heard from a senior serving officer for years - will put Mr Blair under intense pressure to speed up the withdrawal from Iraq. But it will also anger Labour ministers, who will see it as an unacceptable interference in political decisions from a serving solder.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that British troops will stay in Iraq "until the job is done", and the government in Baghdad is strong enough to handle its own internal security. His advisers are calculating on that taking several years.

But Sir Richard urged, in an interview in today's Daily Mail, that the UK should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems. We are in a Muslim country and Muslims' views of foreigners in their country are quite clear."

He added: "I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning.

"The original intention was that we put in place a liberal democracy that was an exemplar for the region, was pro-West and might have a beneficial effect on the balance within the Middle East. That was the hope, whether that was a sensible or naïve hope, history will judge. I don't think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition."

His remarks prompted an immediate call from the Liberal Democrats for a change of strategy in Iraq. Their leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, warned: "Brick by brick, government policy on Iraq is collapsing. Senior military figures who were always doubtful about action in Iraq and its aftermath are becoming increasingly anxious about our role and the risks involved. There is no doubt however that there is a slide towards civil war."

The Tory defence spokesman Liam Fox said: "To have one of our senior military figures speaking out on behalf of those under his command is a refreshing change. When I was in Iraq, soldiers told me the same thing."

Sir Richard also lamented the disappearance from British society of what he called the "broader Judaic-Christian tradition" which underpins the Army.

He said: "When I see the Islamist threat in this country I hope it doesn't make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country. Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind. I think it is up to society to realise that is the situation we are in.

"We can't wish the Islamist challenge to our society away and I believe that the Army, both in Iraq and Afghanistan and probably wherever we go next, is fighting the foreign dimension of the challenge to our accepted way of life. We need to face up to the Islamist threat, to those who act in the name of Islam and, in a perverted way, try to impose Islam by force on societies that do not wish it.

"It is said that we live in a post-Christian society. I think that is a great shame. The broader Judaic-Christian tradition has underpinned British society. It underpins the British Army."

He added that he had been "outraged" that a soldier recovering in hospital was told by an objector to remove his uniform, and had complained to Mr Browne that the "covenant" between the Army and the nation was being ignored. "I said to the Secretary of State the Army won't let the nation down but I don't want the nation to let the Army down," he said.

"It is not acceptable for our casualties to be in mixed wards with civilians. I was outraged at the story of someone saying 'take your uniform off'. Our people need the privacy of recovering in a military environment."

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said last night: "We have a clear strategy in Iraq. We are there with our international partners, in support of the democratically elected Government of Iraq, under a clear UN mandate."

Staunch defender of his soldiers

General Sir Richard Dannatt was appointed in August this year, taking over from General Sir Mike Jackson. His predecessor had faced criticism from within the Army that he was not standing up for its interests. It is unlikely the same could now be said of General Dannatt.

Quieter than his predecessor, the 55-year-old father of four has commanded British forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, having begun service in Northern Ireland, where his bravery won him the Military Cross at the age of 22 - although that is something he apparently will not discuss in public.

His appointment may well have been welcomed in Whitehall - prior to taking the promotion as head of the Army, he was commander-in-chief of British land forces. He also has experience serving as a military assistant in the private office of defence ministers and held key posts at the heart of the MOD.

Any hope that he would exercise a mandarin's discretion at any cost once in post has not been met. In September, he used his first interview to warn how much troops were being stretched in Afghanistan, asking: "Can we cope? Just."

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