Under fire: the architects of war

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair suffered a backlash from senior Labour MPs over the war in Iraq yesterday when a former minister warned that the conflict could turn into another Vietnam.

The growing political tensions affected the architects of war on both sides of the Atlantic and the Bush administration was forced to deny that its strategy is in disarray. Reports surfaced of a rift between senior US military commanders and Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, over the size and nature of the force sent to oust Saddam Hussein.

In Washington, Mr Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flatly denied suggestions of disagreement. "That's not true," the US Defence Secretary declared.

And he dismissed suggestions that the 12-day campaign was taking a breather – of anything up to a month, some reports have suggested – to allow reinforcements to arrive at the front line, 50 miles south of Baghdad. "We have no plans for pauses or ceasefires or anything else," Mr Rumsfeld said.

But while air attacks continued on Republican Guard units and on "regime targets" in the capital, the impression is that the US forces are digging in, building up reserves and securing supply lines.

Although the Allies attacked Baghdad, where a huge fire was burning after the Iraqis lit an oil trench close to the city centre, the main action seemed to be around the southern port of Basra. British forces claimed to have captured five senior Iraqi officers and hit the city's television tower. A British soldier was killed when his launch on the Zubayr river came under grenade attack.

In London the unofficial political truce since the war began was shattered when Robin Cook, who resigned as Leader of the Commons two weeks ago, called for British forces to be brought home.

After being accused of disloyalty to the troops by his former cabinet colleagues, Mr Cook said he was not advocating immediate withdrawal and that he wanted President Saddam defeated.

But he stood by his criticisms, saying the Government's hopes for a "quick, easy war" had failed to materialise and that the campaign had been "badly planned". He said there was no sign of President Saddam being overthrown by his associates or the Iraqi people welcoming coalition troops as liberators.

His comments reflected concern among Labour MPs that the war strategy has been blown off course. Doug Henderson, a former armed forces minister, called for a ceasefire. He said: "Unless there is a withdrawal very soon, then we will probably get bogged down in the way that the Americans got bogged down in Vietnam. Half a million soldiers [were] committed in Vietnam; 55,000 American deaths, probably about two million deaths of Vietnamese. Now, do we want to get into the kind of situation that could lead to that?"

The Government, which has been repeatedly assured by the Bush administration that the war is going according to plan, was thrown on to the defensive by Mr Cook's attack.

But the fractures in London are being mirrored in the US, where The New Yorker says in today's edition of the magazine that Mr Rumsfeld turned down requests from top uniformed commanders for more troops, and resisted pleas that the campaign be delayed until more troops were ready.

The US commander, General Tommy Franks, said there had been no new deployment orders since the start of the war, and he maintained that troop numbers were sufficient.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, conceded that more British troops might be needed. But he insisted it was "not possible" that the coalition would lose the war. "I am absolutely confident in the military strategy," he said.