British Army chief 'not breaking ranks' over Iraq comments
Published by webmaster for 24dash.com in Central Government
Sir Richard Dannatt (Pic: PA)
The head of the British Army insisted today that he was not breaking ranks with the Government over his call for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq "sometime soon".
General Sir Richard Dannatt denied that he was at odds with the Prime Minister and argued that his comments about Iraq were neither "substantially new or substantially newsworthy".
Sir Richard, who became Chief of the General Staff in August, was speaking after warning in an interview with the Daily Mail that we should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems".
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "It was never my intention to have this hoo-ha which people have thoroughly enjoyed overnight in trying to suggest there is a chasm between myself as head of the Army and the Prime Minister or between myself as head of the Army and the Secretary of State for Defence.
"My intention is particularly to speak up for what is right for the Army. That is my job. That is my constituency.
"If some people have chosen to pick up one or two of the comments I have made and tried to make frankly quite a large mountain or chasm out of that then so be it.
"But I think a lot of this comment has just grown comment on comment and some of it has got a bit fanciful."
Prime Minister Tony Blair has consistently maintained that troops would only be withdrawn from Iraq as the new democratically-elected administration was able to cope on its own.
Sir Richard's frank intervention is unprecedented for such a senior military commander and has been seized on as a major broadside at Mr Blair's foreign policy.
It caused widespread astonishment but was welcomed by opposition MPs and anti-war groups.
However, Sir Richard insisted today that he was not a "maverick" and that he saw "eye to eye" with the Prime Minister.
He said his remarks were part of a "general background interview" authorised by Defence Secretary Des Browne and were "not particularly newsworthy".
And he clarified his comments about UK troops needing to withdraw "sometime soon".
"I mean that when the mission that we have gone to do is substantially complete we should be leaving," he told Today.
"And given that we have been in Iraq for some three and a half years now, quite a long length of time, and that's put a fair pressure on ourselves - as indeed it's putting a pressure on our coalition partners - that when the mission is substantially done we should leave."
He added: "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."
Sir Richard continued: "When the job is done we will go, and I hope that will be sometime soon."
Sir Richard stood by his comments and insisted his call for British troops to be withdrawn "sometime soon" was not at odds with Government policy.
He told Sky News: "We are not on the run; we are not hauling our colours down.
"We are going to see this thing through but we have got to get on with it; we can't be there for years and years in the sorts of numbers we are.
"We all recognise that. There is nothing new in what I am saying there and that's what I mean by 'sometime soon': when the mission is substantially done'."
He added: "That is what our aim is. But it is to leave sometime soon when the mission is done.
"We have been there three and a half years so far and three and a half years ago we had tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq.
"We are now down to about 7,000. There are four provinces in south-east Iraq that we, the British look after. "e have handed two of those over to the Iraqis already and we are well on the way to handing over Maysan, a third province, over to the Iraqis.
"So we are making progress within our campaign plan and we have an interest in getting on with this.
"The Army is exceptionally busy so I want to see this mission successfully concluded, but I also want to make sure I've got an Army that's not so exhausted that it's still there and can do the job in five years' time, in 10 years' time, wherever the nation requires us to go next."
He rejected suggestions that he was backtracking.
"I have withdrawn none of the comments that I have made. I have given a little more explanation about what I meant by 'sometime soon'; that's not backtracking."
Sir Richard insisted that progress was being made in Iraq, noting that British troops had handed over two southern provinces to Iraqi control.
"Already our responsibilities are much reduced," he said.
Challenged about his warning that the British presence was making the security situation worse and provoking hostility, he replied: "That comment is slightly taken out of its context."
He added: "It is an absolute fact that in some parts of the country the fact that we are there causes people to attack us and in that sense our presence exacerbates violence."
However this was not true right across the country, he insisted.
Sir Richard said he had only made a "few" comments about Iraq in the Daily Mail interview.
"I don't believe that those comments that I made about Iraq were substantially new or substantially newsworthy," he added.
"We need to keep on thinking about time, because time is against us, because time is money, time is particularly soldiers and soldiers' lives, and we can't go on forever."
Sir Richard said Britain must "stay in step" with its American allies, but he also warned that the army must not be "broken" by the Iraq mission.
And he stressed: "I am not a maverick in this sense. I am soldier speaking up for his army. I am just saying come on, we can't be here forever at this level.
"I have got an army to look after which is going to be successful in current operations, but I want an army in five years time and ten years time.
"Don't let's break it on this one. Let's keep an eye on time."
Sir Richard denied reports that he was to face an emergency meeting with Mr Browne today over his comments.
"The Defence Secretary and I spoke on the telephone last night. We are not planning to meet today.
"He is in Scotland, I think on constituency business, and I am here, carrying out a normal set of duties today."
He said he did not believe he had created any "major rift" with the Government.
In his interview with the Daily Mail, Sir Richard also suggested that the Government's aim of creating a liberal democracy in Iraq was "naive" and would not be achieved.
Britain had "effectively kicked the door in" when troops entered during the 2003 military campaign, he said.
"Whatever consent we may have had in the first place, may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance," he said.
"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."
Downing Street insisted that troops were there at the "express wish" of the Iraqi Government.
He said the effects of the conflict could be felt in Britain, where there was a "moral compass spinning" and the Islamist threat had to be faced up to.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has maintained that troops would only be withdrawn from Iraq when the new democratically-elected administration was able to cope on its own.
But Sir Richard doubted whether the original aim of creating a pro-West democracy which was a beacon of the Middle East would ever be achieved.
He added: "I don't think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition."
A Downing Street spokesperson 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."
A Ministry of Defence spokesman added: "We have a clear strategy in Iraq.
"We are there with our international partners, in support of the democratically elected Government of Iraq, under a clear UN mandate."
Meanwhile, a Labour peer and former Minister, Lord Foulkes, claimed that the general had been "hung out to dry" by some sections of the media.
Lord Foulkes, a former Labour Party front-bench defence spokesman, told the Press Association: "Having heard the Chief of the General Staff being interviewed on radio this morning, it is clear that he has been both misinterpreted and hung out to dry by the Daily Mail and the BBC in his comments on Iraq.
"I can understand why the Daily Mail, with its anti-Government agenda, has taken his few remarks out of a long background interview and turned them into headlines.
"But there seems to have been collusion between the Daily Mail and the BBC who had this on the 10pm News last night from the first edition of the Daily Mail and have been running with it all last night and this morning."
Lord Foulkes went on: "The BBC has a duty to be fair and impartial which seems to be questionable in this particular instance. The CGS made it absolutely clear on the radio that his views do not differ from those of the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister.
"And yet the BBC on the Today programme continued to try to infer that the general's comments were a criticism of the Government."
He added: "The continuing attempts to undermine the Government by some sections of the media are merely serving to undermine the position of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and are irresponsible and prejudicial to what our forces have been asked to undertake."
Colonel Tim Collins, one of the most senior officers in Iraq in 2003, said Sir Richard had given a "refreshing and very honest insight into what the Army generally feel".
"That is that the political shortcomings and the shortcomings in the planning for the occupation of Iraq have made the job of the Army very much more difficult," he told the Today programme.
"And there comes a time when the realisation on the ground is that the people of Iraq do resent foreign intervention and there comes a time when we have got to look forward to when we can hand it over to the Iraqis for them to sort out."
He added: "I think we have to salute the honesty of the Chief of General Staff and understand that he is reflecting the beliefs of the Army, the people on the ground. He is not a politician and he is not given to spin, so what you hear from him is absolutely ground truth."
Sarah Sands, the journalist who conducted the interview for the Daily Mail, said she did not believe Sir Richard had deliberately set out to be controversial.
"He is an honest soldier. He was giving an assessment which wasn't intended to be political. It was the truth as he saw it.
She added: "You obviously have to take a line out of an interview.
"What he was talking about was the difference in status really between what's happening in Afghanistan and what is happening in Iraq, and his view was that we have probably come to the end of what we can achieve in Iraq and we need to be concentrating on Afghanistan.
"I think it was an honest soldier's assessment. If he is bemused it is because he doesn't understand perhaps how politics and the media look at these things.
"When he said it, it certainly wasn't a calculated challenge to the Prime Minister - he never mentioned the Prime Minister.
"It was a soldier's assessment of what was happening on the ground," she said.
"The interview was authorised and the Secretary of State was happy about it and so on, and I think... he said something publicly perhaps that everyone has said privately, that in Iraq things aren't going to improve now and really our soldiers' job is more or less done."
Respect MP George Galloway (Bethnal Green and Bow) said: "Mutiny in the ranks is one thing, but this is a declaration of mutiny by the very shiniest of the top brass.
"Britain's top soldier says that this war is at best naive and at worst a disaster, and that it is certainly untenable - in which case why should British soldiers risk leaving their bones in Iraq? If they listen to their Commanding Officer, they must surely conclude that now is the time to collectively demand that they return home."
Respect national secretary John Rees, a founder of the Stop the War Coalition, added: "The head of the British Army is saying what we have been saying for years, that the invasion was a mistake, that we're making the situation worse, and that we should get out."
Military Families Against War's Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was killed while serving in Iraq, said: "I'm just really delighted that Sir Richard Dannatt has stood up and spoken out. He is protecting our boys. We have been saying for two years this needed to happen and I think military families have done a good bit."
Copyright - Press Association 2006.
CLICK on the LOGO to LISTEN to our 24dash AUDIO NEWS BULLETINS
READ NEXT »