Iraq: the people have their say. And it's bad news for Tony Blair

Colin Brown,Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 24 October 2006 00:00

72 per cent predict that Iraq will descend into civil war if British and American troops withdraw

61 per cent believe Britain's experience in Iraq makes them less likely to support military intervention

72 per cent say that Tony Blair's support for George Bush calls into question his political judgement

62 per cent believe that British troops should be withdrawn from Iraq as soon as possible

72 per cent believe that the war in Iraq is unwinnable


Demands for an urgent Commons debate on pulling British troops out of Iraq were stepped up last night at Westminster after an opinion poll found that 62 per cent of voters support a withdrawal before the country has been made stable.

The poll dealt a blow to efforts by Tony Blair to shore up his strategy of keeping British forces in Iraq "until the job is done". In talks in Downing Street with the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, Mr Blair again said Britain had to "hold its nerve".

But a CommunicateResearch poll for The Independent showed a majority rejects the Bush-Blair strategy and wants British troops to be pulled out sooner rather than later, even if Iraq is not stable.

The extent of the collapse of confidence on Iraq was underlined by a second poll finding, that showed 72 per cent now say the war in Iraq is " unwinnable".

Most damaging for Mr Blair, 60 per cent of Labour voters favour pulling out even if Iraq is unstable - 1 percentage point more than Tory voters. Only 28 per cent said they would support the Bush-Blair strategy of keeping troops in Iraq until the country is stable.

Last night, Sir Menzies Campbell said the Bush-Blair strategy was in " ruins" and led calls for an urgent debate in the Commons with a vote on a possible pull-out.

The Liberal Democrat leader said: "If we are to salvage anything from Iraq, the essential first step is an admission from the Prime Minister and President Bush that they got it wrong. Their strategy is in ruins."

Sir Menzies added: "In March 2003, Parliament was allowed to debate whether military action should be taken. Surely Parliament should now be allowed to debate whether we stay or go. The Government owes that to the House of Commons but most of all to the British people."

The momentum for a debatehas been increased by the leaked Baker review in the US calling for a radical change of course, including seeking co-operation from Iran and Syria. The warning by General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British armed forces, that the presence of British troops was "exacerbating" the security situation added pressure on Mr Blair.

A total of 19 MPs last night had signed a cross-party motion calling for Mr Blair to put an exit strategy to a Commons vote. It was tabled by John McDonnell, the chairman of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs, which is challenging for the leadership. "Tony Blair is living in a different world," said Mr McDonnell. "He hasn't got an exit strategy." Mr McDonnell said the only way policy could be changed was through a change of leader.

Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, highlighted growing unease in Washington and London over Iraq by admitting that the invasion may come to be judged by historians as "a foreign policy disaster".

In a split with Downing Street, she also admitted that Iraq could eventually break up. Mrs Beckett said it was important now for the Iraqi people to unite behind the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In the longer term, she said it was up to the Iraqis to decide for themselves whether they wanted to continue as a single state.

"That is very much a matter for the Iraqis. They have had enough of people from outside handing down arbitrary boundaries and arbitrary decisions," she said on BBC radio.

"Everyone has been very keen to keep everyone together. But, in the longer term, they have just set up a constitutional review. It is they, the Iraqis, who are conducting it. It is not for us to say 'you will do this' or 'you will do that'."

Downing Street said no formal review of the Allied strategy was being conducted in Whitehall. However, that refusal to consider a exit strategy is likely to put Mr Blair under renewed pressure at Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow.

Mrs Beckett broadly endorsed comments at the weekend by Foreign Office minister Kim Howells, who said Iraqi forces could be ready to take over responsibility for security "within a year or so".

She stressed there could be no arbitrary deadline for the drawing down of British forces from the country.

"It would be a mistake to set some kind of false deadline for people to work towards. This is going step by step as it is possible and practicable to move forward," she said.

The Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister said: "We do believe there is no option for the international community to cut and run. The future of Iraq is vital to the future of the Middle East and the world order." Mr Salih added that Iraqis had to give the lead but they would need help for some time.

Meanwhile, there were reports that President Bush is considering punishing the Baghdad administration if it fails to meet deadlines to stop the violence, which has flared to new heights in the past month.

Reports suggested the US would set benchmarks for progress on military, law and order and economic goals with "penalties" to be imposed if they were missed. The White House said yesterday it was using " milestones" to gauge progress but said the measures were not linked to any ultimatums.

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