Cameron taunts Blair over split with Army chief on Iraq

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair insists Britain will not be forced into a premature withdrawal of its troops from Iraq despite mounting pressure for him to change his strategy.

In the Commons, the Prime Minister hinted that a pull-out could begin within 18 months. But his official spokesman insisted later that there had been no change of policy and the Government would not set an "arbitrary deadline".

Mr Blair came under fire from both the Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders after the call last week by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, for British troops to be recalled soon.

In a sign of the Prime Minister's increasing isolation, David Cameron, the Tory leader, edged the Opposition another step away from its initial support for the Government's actions in Iraq by highlighting the differences between General Dannatt's remarks and those of Mr Blair.

Mr Cameron said the head of the Army had called on the Government to lower its ambition to create a liberal democracy in Iraq, and said that the presence of British troops could exacerbate the situation.

He told Mr Blair: "We support the elected government of Iraq and we all want to get the job done.

"But when you say we are going to get the job done we need to know what you mean. It's no use having you say one thing and the Chief of the General Staff say another thing."

The Prime Minister replied: "It's our policy to withdraw progressively from Iraq as the Iraqi forces are capable of taking on the security task."

He appeared to acknowledge that the presence of British troops could make matters worse in some circumstances. "It's important that when we are able to hand over to them, that we do so. Otherwise, of course, we are a provocation rather than a help to them."

Mr Blair accused the Conservative leader of moving away from the bi-partisan approach to Iraq - a charge later denied by the Tories. "I don't want to dismay our allies or hearten our enemies by suggesting we will do anything other than stay until the job is done," Mr Blair said.

Urging MPs to back moderates and democrats against extremists and terrorists, he added: "If we desert the Iraqi government now, at the very time when it is building up the forces, so that the Iraqi forces can take over security, [it] would be a gross dereliction of our duty to it."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, chided the Tories for changing their tune after supporting the invasion in 2003. He told Mr Blair that his Commons answers were not borne out by events on the ground, with 3,000 Iraqi civilians being killed every month.

Citing doubts expressed among political and military figures on both sides of the Atlantic, Sir Menzies said there was only one conclusion - that the Government's strategy on Iraq had failed. "In those circumstances, the choice is stark - change the strategy or else get out," he said.

Despite their growing misgivings, most Labour MPs rallied behind Mr Blair, who bounced back after what he admits privately was his worst performance at Prime Minister's Questions a week earlier. But with increasing doubts in the United States about President George Bush's strategy in Iraq, there is mounting pressure from MPs of all parties for a full-scale Commons debate on Mr Blair's approach.

As the political row deepened, nine soldiers and one Marine were killed in Iraq, bringing October's death toll of American troops to 69, an average of almost four a day, and putting the month on course to be one of the deadliest for US forces in Iraq.