British top General says troops are unwelcome in Iraq

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Friday, October 13, 2006

The Head of the British Armed forces, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has told the Daily Mail that troops are unwelcome in Iraq and that if they are not withdrawn soon, the situation could become catastrophic.

These remarks seem to be in sharp contrast with those of the Prime Minister earlier this year when he said "But don't be in any doubt. No-one, but no-one I spoke to [in Baghdad], from whatever quarter, wanted us to leave precipitately. An arbitrary timetable ie without conditions being right, would be seen for what it would be: weakness."

General Dannatt told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning that he had to "speak up for what is right for the Army" but that his remarks to the Daily Mail "were neither substantially new or substantially newsworthy". He said that the presence of UK troops "exacerbates" the problems "not right across the country, but only in parts of it".

The BBC reported that Downing Street had issued a short statement in response to the general's comments. It said: "It's important that people remember that we are in Iraq at the express wish of the democratically elected Iraqi government, to support them under the mandate of a UN resolution."

The Scotsman in a Key Quote highlights the General saying - "I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."

The Times draws attention to Blair's speech at the Labour Party Conference just two weeks ago saying why the troops will have to stay in Iraq - "If we retreat now, hand Iraq over to al-Qaeda and sectarian death squads and Afghanistan back to al-Qaeda and the Taleban, we won't be safer; we will be committing a craven act of surrender that will put our future security in the deepest peril."

Al Jazeera leads with the story, under a picture of a military ambulance being loaded, with the headline UK army chief pleads for Iraq pull out, and quotes extracts from the General's interview with the Daily Mail including: "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 military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in. Whatever consent we may have had in the first place, may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance. That is a fact. I don't say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq, but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them." The report concludes with a snapshot of the chaos in Baghdad by reporting an attack by gunmen on a TV station, when 11 staff were killed in the biggest attack yet on the media.

The Washington Post carries a report from Associated Press headed ‘British Army Chief Who Called for Iraq Withdrawal 'Soon' Denies Rift With Government' in which the General is reported as saying that by 'soon' he meant a phased withdrawal over two or three years. He is reported as saying to Sky News, "We'll probably reduce our soldiers over the course of the next year or two or three -- let's wait and see. That's what I mean by sometime soon,". He denied that he was attacking government policy saying to BBC radio "We don't do surrender. We don't pull down white flags. We're going to see this through."

Alongside a photograph of British soldiers rushing to the scene of a helicopter crash in Basra May 6 2006, Fox News, commenting on the story, says "Dannatt's comments are certain to infuriate Blair, who is President Bush's key ally in the Iraq war. It is highly unusual for a sitting British military commander to publicly criticize the government's foreign policy. ... Britain's involvement in Iraq has proved highly controversial from the outset. Millions protested on the streets in the lead up to the war in 2003, while high profile cabinet ministers have quit the government as a result of Tony Blair's support for the U.S.-led action."

BBC News quotes Prime Minister Blair as saying that he agrees with "every word" the General said and that transcripts of later radio interviews showed Sir Richard was saying "the same as we all are". Subsequently, BBC New 24 at 9pm, reported that when Blair said he agreed with "every word", he was referring to what the General had been saying in radio and TV interviews this morning and not to the original interview reported in the Daily Mail. This cleared up a misunderstanding evidenced in discussions among commentators and in Any Questions this evening.

The British Army Rumour Service, ARRSE, which describes itself as " THE unofficial British Army community website". asks viewers to complete the sentence "Sir Richard Dannatt is...". As at 18,50 13 October, of the 181 responses, 144 agreed that he was absolutely right and 26 that he was right only from military point of view. The same site has blogs from troops in theatre.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind M.P., interviewed by Channel4 News, said that he agreed with every word the general said, but deplored the fact that he had said it while still a serving officer. Like Civil Servants, members of the Armed Forces owed allegiance to the democratically elected government of the day and should not express their personal opinions while still in uniform.

The U.S. White House spokesman Tony Snow responded to Friday press briefing questions from reporters by saying that General Danatt's comments were taken out of context, referring to back-pedalling clarifications that came later from Danatt. Snow said, [referring to later interviews conducted this morning], that "he says that's not what he said. ... he said that he was misquoted and that "that particular comment [in the original interview] was actually rather largely taken out of context.''

Two major U.S. media outlets, ABC's World News with Charles Gibson and USA Today, remained wary and made no news mention of the controversy ignited by the general's remarks until an official British political response emerged.

The story continues in the British press today, October 14, for example, in the Scotsman which reveals the it was Des Browne, the Defence Secretary who put pressure on the General to clarify his remarks in the series of media events that took place yesterday morning, the content of which the Prime Minister agreed wholeheartedly. However, many retired military personnel and some still on active service, have expressed their support for the General, in the media, including the now widely quoted British Army Rumour Service. Some correspondents are disturbed to think that the military are becoming too involved in politics and that the authority of Parliament might become undermined.

Sources

  • Channel4 News broadcast 19.15 13 October
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