Leading article: Brown's inescapable duty

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Something went wrong with the Government's choreography yesterday. The message was supposed to be of a subtle modulation in the British policy towards Iraq. Tony Blair was reaching out to Arab opinion by giving an interview to al-Jazeera's new English-language television channel, in which he sought to clarify last week's very slight softening towards Iraq's neighbours Syria and Iran. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown introduced himself to the troops in Basra. Unfortunately what Downing Street described as Mr Blair's "slip of the tongue" in his interview transformed the message into, "It is a disaster. Over to you, Gordon."

By mistake, then, the Prime Minister acknowledged what cannot be denied. When Sir David Frost put it to him that the violence in Iraq had "so far been pretty much of a disaster", Mr Blair replied, "It has." It might have been better to have made a virtue of this, and for Mr Blair to accept that the situation in Iraq is much worse than "difficult", which is the word he preferred to use. No one would expect him to say that it was a mistake to get rid of Saddam Hussein; or that it was a mistake to help the Iraqis draw up a constitution and elect a government. But the security situation bequeathed by the coalition invasion is now far more than "difficult"; it is disastrous. It might help, in trying to work out where British and indeed United States policy goes from here, for all the participants to start by recognising this.

Last week began with the death of four British soldiers on the Shatt al-Arab waterway on Remembrance Sunday. On Monday, spinning and confusion surrounded Mr Blair's apparent overtures to presidents Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On Tuesday, Mr Blair gave evidence to the US Iraq Study Group about a way forward. That such a week should have ended with the Prime Minister's "slip of the tongue" is a striking warning to Mr Brown of the problems that he will inherit.

We urge him, if and when he does take over, to mark the transition with a serious acknowledgement of the depth of the problems that the coalition and, rather more to the point, the Iraqi people face as a result of the disastrous decision three years ago in which his predecessor played such a prominent part.

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