The head of the British army has sparked a storm by calling for Britain to withdraw "sometime soon" from Iraq and settle for something less than its initial ambition to set up a pro-western democracy.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff, told the Daily Mail newspaper that the army's presence was "exacerbating" Britain's security problems both in Iraq and around the world.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff, Britain.
Hours after the tabloid published the interview, Dannatt, who has a reputation for frank talk, took to the airwaves to deny impressions that he was at odds with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Defence Secretary Des Browne.
"I see eye to eye with the prime minister," Dannatt told BBC radio, adding he did not intend "to have this hoo-ha which people have thoroughly enjoyed overnight in trying to suggest that there is a chasm" with Blair and Browne.
Speaking on both BBC radio and Sky News television, Dannatt stuck by the remarks contained in his newspaper interview which he said took place with Browne's consent.
He insisted only on clarifying that in some areas of Iraq, the army's presence was provoking violence, while in others, particularly in the main southern city of Basra, it was welcomed by the people.
The BBC reported that Blair, who is in Scotland for talks on Northern Ireland, had been involved in conference calls overnight on the issue.
In St Andrews, Blair's official spokesman conceded that the general's interview had raised questions that he himself answered and said Blair did not speak to Dannatt either Thursday night or Friday morning.
The spokesman also said Britain remains committed both to "planning force packages" in Iraq through 2007 and 2008 as well as to underpinning a unified Iraqi state.
Dannatt said that though the intention of invading Iraq was to set up a pro-Western liberal democracy which "might have a beneficial effect on the balance within the Middle East", he did not think "we are going to do that."
"I think we should aim for a lower ambition."
Dannatt even wondered aloud whether Iraq could remain unified.
He also said: "I don't say the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them."
Dannatt added that Britain should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems".
In his broadcast interviews later, he sought to counter any impression of an immediate pull-out and said moves had to be coordinated with the United States, which provides the bulk of allied troops in Iraq.
"I mean that when the mission that we have gone to do is substantially complete we should be leaving," he told BBC radio.
"We don't want to be there another two, three, four, five years. We've got to think about this is terms of a reasonable length of time," he added.
"When the job is done we will go, and I hope that will be sometime soon," he said.
His remarks were interpreted as contradicting Blair's defence of the presence of British troops in Iraq in September, when he said that if Britain were to withdraw, the country "will be committing a craven act of surrender that will put our future security in the deepest peril".
Dannatt went on to say: "We are in a Muslim country and Muslims' views of foreigners in their country are quite clear ... As a foreigner, you can be welcomed by being invited in a country, but we weren't invited certainly by those in Iraq at the time."
The general, who rose to his post as head of the army in August, said that the "military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in."
"Whatever consent we may have had in the first place ... has largely turned to intolerance."
He also slammed the plans for rebuilding Iraq, saying that "history will show that the planning ... was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning".
Colonel Tim Collins, one of the most senior British Army officers in Iraq in 2003, praised Dannatt for what he said was a "refreshing and very honest insight into what the army generally feel."
Anti-war campaigners welcomed Dannatt airing his views, with the left-wing Stop The War Coalition even inviting the general to speak at the group's next public demonstration.
Britain has 7,200 troops in southern Iraq patrolling an area around Basra, a bastion of Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Since Britain joined the US-led invasion three years ago, 119 British troops have been killed in Iraq.
Copyright © 2006 AFP