All countries must stay course in Iraq, Bush tells Brown

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The Independent Online

The first signs of real divisions between George Bush and Gordon Brown over Iraq emerged as the President urged Britain to stay the course in the country.

The American President said: "We need all our coalition partners. I understand that everybody's got their own internal politics. My only point is that whether it be Afghanistan or Iraq, we've got more work to do."

In a Sky News interview, he made clear his irritation with Mr Brown's approach on Iraq. He said Western troops should only think of pulling out once they had completed the "hard work" of defeating al-Qa'ida and Iranian-backed insurgents.

Although Mr Brown has rejected demands to set an exit timetable for the 5,000 British troops in southern Iraq, ministers have said that the decision on their future will be taken independently of Washington. They insist a pull-out of British forces would depend on local conditions in Basra – whatever the plight of US troops in Baghdad.

The Prime Minister is expected to announce next month that Britain will hand over control of security to Iraqi troops and police across the whole of southern Iraq, with British troops switching to "overwatch" status.

President Bush made plain that he wanted to pursue his strategy of a "surge" in troops and wanted his allies to stay the course. The US General David Petraeus, who is in charge of operations in Iraq, is due to unveil his report on the effectiveness of the troop surge on 12 September.

In an interview with Sky News' Australian political editor, Mr Bush warned the country's Labour Party leader, Kevin Rudd – who is favourite to win a general election in October – not to go ahead with his plans for a swift troop withdrawal.

He widened his remarks to include all of America's allies. "What matters is success, and I believe we can be successful. This hard work will achieve what we all want, which is, over time, fewer troops and peace. The main thing we want is to make sure that we deal these radicals and extremists a major blow, which is success in Iraq."

Yesterday, two of Mr Brown's cabinet ministers hit back at claims by the retired American general Jack Keane that the British mission in southern Iraq is failing and that the gradual withdrawal of troops was fuelling the insurgency.

Writing in the Washington Post, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, insisted that Britain was "on track" and defended plans to hand over to the Iraqis.

They stated: "In those southern provinces already transferred to Iraqi control, the political and security authorities have responded robustly to recent intimidation and violence. They have grown in stature and confidence in a way that was impossible while we retained control.

"The United Kingdom is sticking to the mission we took on four years ago. But our commitment to Iraq will not end when our troop movements and the transfer of security control in Basra are complete.

"The international community will need to maintain its support of Iraq for a long time to come, even if the form of that support will evolve over time."

Mr Miliband and Mr Brown insisted there was no anti-government insurgency and very little evidence of an al-Qa'ida presence in southern Iraq, but admitted that intense political competition between longstanding rival Shia movements too often spilt over into violence. "To recognise that such challenges remain is not to accept that our mission in southern Iraq is failing," they wrote.