Clarke: PM's policy 'has turned to dust'

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Tony Blair gave the clearest hint yesterday that he hopes to announce British troop withdrawals from Iraq by Easter. But he was warned by one of his former cabinet ministers that the war and its aftermath could turn his legacy to dust.

The Prime Minister signalled he hoped to announce the withdrawal of thousands of troops long before he leaves office in spite of the US reinforcements being sent to Baghdad. But in an outspoken attack on the Blair legacy, Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, said: "The Blair premiership is a classic illustration of the potential for good intentions to turn to dust."

Mr Clarke, who was sacked over the foreign prisoners fiasco at the Home Office, listed Iraq among the policies that had backfired on Mr Blair. He said the Prime Minister pledged to put Britain at the heart of Europe but the Government had "failed to face its Euro-demons"; and its "ethical foreign policy" had "given way to a desire not to rock the boat of arms sales to Saudi Arabia". His article in the New Statesman magazine also criticised Mr Blair's "ill considered determination" to renew the Trident nuclear weapon system.

Mr Blair is planning to make a Commons statement about troop withdrawals once the British Operation Sinbad - which is aimed at stabilising Basra and handing over to Iraqi forces - is completed at the end of February after a "period of assessment", which would cover the Middle East, said senior No 10 officials. There are hopes in Downing Street that nearly half of the British force of 7,200 troops could be withdrawn, leaving about 4,000 in barracks to cope with emergencies.

Military sources joined Mr Clarke in expressing caution about Mr Blair's legacy on Iraq. They expressed fears that the US plans to send more troops to crack down on the Mehdi Army led by the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could intensify attacks on British troops in Basra

Mr Blair told MPs yesterday that Operation Sinbad had been "successful up to now" and made it clear he was not planning to deploy more British forces.

Downing Street denied that the withdrawal of British troops while the US increased deployment would strain relations with the White House. "The whole position has always been based on the conditions on the ground. The assessment will look into conditions on the ground but they are different to those in Baghdad," said a senior official.