Leading article: An unfolding catastrophe

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The Independent Online

In Iraq itself, the situation goes from bad to worse. Yesterday, 33 people were killed after two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside a Baghdad restaurant. Near the Iranian border, 27 bodies were found, believed to be victims of a sectarian attack.

And the conditions that would allow Britain's 8,000 troops to begin withdrawing are as distant as ever. Training of the Iraqi army is going badly. Only the Kurdish divisions are trusted by US and British generals. The Iraqi police force has been infiltrated by sectarian militiamen and the number of recruits has been substantially overestimated. Iraq is nowhere near ready to take responsibility for its own security. Unless rapid changes are seen, Britain's troops will have to stay where they are for some time to come. The situation in the south of Iraq - over which the British army has control - is rapidly becoming as bad as the rest of the country. Yet if troops stay, there will be more mortar attacks, more roadside bombs and tensions with the local community will continue to rise.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair seems curiously disengaged from this unfolding catastrophe. The Prime Minister appears more concerned with pushing through draconian measures at home and securing his domestic legacy than talking about Iraq. But he cannot be allowed to escape the consequences of his actions. Yesterday, a panel of Muslim advisers, created in the wake of the July 7 bombings, released a report on the state of the Islamic community in Britain. The Government's actions in Iraq come in for special criticism. British foreign policy is cited as a "key contributory factor" in spurring UK Muslims to extremism. According to the report, "radical impulses are often triggered by injustices inherent in Western foreign policy".

This flies in the face of Mr Blair's assertion that Iraq has not put Britain at greater risk of terrorist attacks. That this criticism comes from a panel appointed directly by the Prime Minister makes it impossible for Mr Blair to dismiss its conclusions. Yesterday, the Home Office minister Hazel Blears ventured - rather weakly - that this report shows the Government is willing to listen to views that contradict its own. But a much fuller response is required. We also deserve to be told when the Government expects British troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq. We will need answers to these questions long before the next Armistice Day comes round.

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