Leading article: The general is right... we need to consider our exit strategy from Iraq

Sir Richard Dannatt's concerns expose the lie that conditions on the ground are improving

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By all accounts the new head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, was appointed because he was the sort of man who could be trusted to keep his head down; someone who would continue the low-key style of his predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson. And, no doubt, under normal circumstances Sir Richard would have been perfectly happy to do just that. But these are far from normal circumstances. And the fact that a conventional figure such as Sir Richard has felt the need to speak out about this government's disastrous foreign policy is testament to the levels of anger and frustration running through our armed services over the task they have been set in Iraq.

Sir Richard articulates what this newspaper has, of course, been saying for some time. The black history of our intervention in Iraq is spelt out in blunt terms. According to the general, "the military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in", making us not liberators in the eyes of most Iraqis but unwelcome forces of occupation. He also stresses that there was a lethal absence of proper planning for the aftermath of the invasion.

His analysis of the present situation in Iraq is just as forthright. Now, he says, the idea of establishing a liberal democracy in Iraq has collapsed. He goes on to argue that the presence of 8,000 of our troops in the country "exacerbates the security problems". In other words, we are doing more harm than good. He suggests the threat we are facing from home-grown terrorists is connected to our military presence in Iraq, that our participation has made us a greater target for murderous fanatics.

Sir Richard maintains there is no difference of opinion between himself and his political masters. And Tony Blair yesterday claimed to "agree with every word" spoken by Sir Richard. But quite clearly this is not the case. With the best will in the world it is impossible to square the bleak picture Sir Richard presents over Iraq with the optimistic assessment of our Prime Minister. Sir Richard's concerns expose the lie that conditions on the ground are improving, that the invasion of Iraq has done nothing to galvanise Islamic extremism around the world and that Mr Blair's decision to ride pillion on President Bush's "war on terror" has made Britain safer.

There was always a question mark over how enthusiastic the senior figures of the military were for Mr Blair's adventure in Iraq. The former chief of defence staff, Sir Michael Boyce, famously felt the need to demand an unequivocal ruling from the Attorney General that the invasion was legal before ordering troops into battle. Now we have the UK's most senior soldier directly contradicting what the Prime Minister and his ministers have been telling us about Iraq. Make no mistake, this intervention is hugely damaging for Mr Blair and the Government. For it suggests that our government is losing the respect and loyalty of the armed forces.

Normally we would be wary of a military commander getting involved in questions of policy, a privilege that properly belong to our democratically elected representatives. But Sir Richard has a right to articulate what his soldiers (and, indeed, a majority of the British population) are feeling. It is only in the deluded world of the Government that his opinions are transformed to dynamite.

But of all Sir Richard's words, the ones that will prove most politically significant for the immediate future will be his assertion that we should withdraw "soon" from Iraq. This is an important moment. The time has come for a debate about our exit strategy from the bloodbath we have helped to create in that country. This most sordid chapter in our nation's history must, somehow, be brought to a close.

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