British ministers question new strategy at cabinet meeting

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The Independent Online

British cabinet ministers have expressed doubts over President George Bush's decision to send another 21,500 troops to Iraq as differences emerged between London and Washington.

Three ministers ­ David Miliband, the Blairite Environment Secretary, Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary ­ questioned the attempt to end the insurgency in and around Baghdad and expressed fears that the 7,200 British troops in Iraq could be put at risk at the Cabinet's weekly meeting yesterday.

Cabinet sources said they did not criticise Tony Blair or question the continuing role for British forces in the country but they questioned whether the "surge" in US troops would make the situation better or worse and whether it was in line with Britain's hopes of a "phased withdrawal".

Downing Street gave only qualified backing for the Bush plan but insisted there was "an underlying symmetry" with the UK operation in southern Iraq.

Mr Blair said the decision "makes sense" and denied that the approach of the two countries was diverging.

Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, reflected the Cabinet's doubts when he declined in media interviews to say that the Government supported the Bush blueprint. His reply was to say that the US approach was "entirely consistent" with Britain's.

Opposition parties expressed severe doubts about the Bush strategy. William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "We remain sceptical that sending additional troops will achieve the desired results."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "This is a strategy that Tony Blair should not follow or endorse. In his final months in office, it is essential that the Prime Minister asserts independence with regards to British policy in Iraq.

"The British strategy should be one based on phased withdrawal sooner rather than later."

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