Blair devastated as Army chief savages his approach to Iraq

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The authority of Tony Blair was left battered last night as he attempted to play down a rift with the head of the British Army over his unprecedented warning that the presence of foreign troops was "exacerbating" the security situation in Iraq

The devastating assessment by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the general staff, infuriated ministers and caused alarm in Washington.

However there was widespread backing across the Army yesterday as soldiers of every rank praised General Dannatt for standing up to the Government.

Within hours of his comments being made public, the Army's unofficial website was packed with hundreds of blogs from troops voicing their support. The messages included: "Can Tony Blair recover from this and justify British presence in Iraq, without using the words 'I was wrong ...?'" Another said: "Dannatt gets my vote! Anyone care to disagree with him? We were lied to when it all started and we are still lied to today!"

Other serving soldiers were also quick to voice their relief at the general's intervention.

One senior officer said: "It has been decades since someone senior actually stood up for us, the soldiers and their families.

"People need to take him seriously. This is not a man who is thinking about his career. This is a man who passionately and clearly believes he should tell the truth and represent all of us."

Last night the Prime Minister tried to minimise the damage, saying he had agreed with General Dannatt's later remarks in a series of "clarifying" interviews. Mr Blair said: "I have to say, I've read his transcript of his interview on the radio this morning, and I agree with every word of it."

As the Government launched a damage-limitation exercise, General Dannatt attempted to clarify his comments. Interviewed on the BBC's Today programme, he said: "I've got an army to look after which is going to be successful in current operations. But 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."

As General Dannatt insisted that there was no rift with the Government, his soldiers were in no mood to back down. Senior officers said he should be "saluted" for his honesty, and frontline soldiers praised him for "telling it how it is".

A non-commissioned officer said: "He has spoken the truth. I think many people feel that but nobody would say it. I agree we should try and get out as soon as we can. That is not to say we let them fight among themselves, but we have always said we would go when the job was done, and I hope it is sooner rather than later.

In his interview with the Daily Mail, General Dannatt said we should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates security problems".

He also suggested that the Government's aim of creating a liberal democracy in Iraq was "naive" and should be scaled down. Britain had "effectively kicked the door in" when troops entered in 2003, he added.

"Whatever consent we may have had in the first place, may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance," 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."

He said the effects of the conflict could be felt in Britain, where there was a "moral compass spinning" and the Islamist threat had to be faced up to.

White House officials made a series of calls to clarify the comments. President George Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, said: "We did call [Downing Street] and say, what did he say? We've received transcripts, especially of this morning's interviews.

"What he said is that the comment was taken out of context, and his general point was that when your work is done, you hand over authority to the Iraqis."

He added: "His general argument is, number one, there's no difference between him and the Blair government or between the Brits and the United States. Number two, this is not an injunction to leave, that somehow everything is getting worse."

General Dannatt earlier issued a clarifying statement, saying Britain would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the Americans adding: "I'm a soldier. We don't do surrender. We don't pull down white flags."

Mr Blair will face a fresh challenge in the Commons next week over Iraq, following the general's intervention. The Commons Select Committee on Defence, which highlighted the threat to morale in Iraq last July, will publish the Government's response. They are expected to summon General Dannatt to expand on his concerns.

The Prime Minister's growing number of critics will be emboldened by the challenge to his authority by the general. Mr Blair's allies are worried where the next challenge will come from. "It's the end of an era," said one minister.

Reg Keys, whose son Thomas was killed in Iraq along with five fellow Royal Military Police officers in 2003, said he agreed "100 per cent" with the general.

Mr Keys said: "He is a strong character who is prepared to speak his mind and not be a spin doctor for the Prime Minister."

However the Tory former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said Sir Richard had not been "playing politics" but should be sacked if he strayed into politics again. He said: "These are perfectly legitimate views for the rest of the nation but serving officers are not, I'm afraid, able to have that kind of freedom."

The SNP's leader, Alex Salmond, told delegates at the party's conference in Perth: "Today the head of the Army - the head of the Army - has said that in his professional opinion our continued presence in Iraq exacerbates the security position in Iraq and elsewhere. Finally the truth."

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