Blair forms plan of attack over general's Iraq criticism

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Tony Blair will hit back today at General Sir Richard Dannatt, who warned last week that the continued presence of British troops in Iraq was "exacerbating" the country's security crisis.

Mr Blair will use his monthly press conference at Downing Street to tackle head-on the most damaging charge by the Chief of the General Staff that the objective of establishing a liberal democracy in Iraq might have to be downgraded.

Downing Street mounted a damage-limitation exercise after the head of Britain's armed forces openly criticised the continued presence of British troops in Iraq. Mr Blair played down the challenge to his authority, saying he agreed with the main thrust of the general's remarks.

However, Mr Blair's allies made clear that he could not allow the challenge to go unanswered. David Blunkett, the former home secretary, is believed to have been reflecting views inside Downing Street when he criticised Sir Richard for "trying to introduce a new constitutional element" by interfering with the Government's decisions.

It is likely that Mr Blair will not directly criticise Sir Richard himself. But the Prime Minister's official spokesman said he would respond to the challenge today in robust terms. "I don't think the Prime Minister is afraid to debate the arguments," he said. "I suspect he will do so with the usual vigour at the press conference."

Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, said the nation needed to debate the presence of British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I don't think [Sir Richard] overstepped the mark. That is the job of senior military commanders."