LONDON – Britain's army chief, who set off a political storm by calling for troops to be withdrawn "soon" from Iraq in part because their presence made the situation worse, said Friday he meant a phased withdrawal over two or three years. He also denied that he was attacking government policy.
Gen. Richard Dannatt gave a series of interviews after newspapers ran front-page stories interpreting his remarks published Thursday by The Daily Mail as a critique of Prime Minister Tony Blair's policy.
Dannatt said in the initial interview that the British military should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems."
On Friday, he insisted Britain stood "shoulder to shoulder with the Americans, and their timing and our timing are one and the same."
"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," Dannatt said in an interview with Sky News.
"We don't do surrender. We don't pull down white flags. We're going to see this through," Dannatt said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Britain has not set a timetable for the departure of its 7,500 troops from Iraq, but it has handed over security responsibilities in two provinces to Iraqi forces and is preparing to do the same in a third.
In Baghdad, a government spokesman expressed confidence that British troops would be staying for the near future.
The British government has "confirmed its support to the Iraqi government," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press. "The presence of these forces is necessary so that they can participate in establishing stability in Iraq."
Al-Dabbagh said that for now, foreign troops are welcomed in Iraq.
"The Iraqi government does not wish to keep the foreign forces forever, but these forces are staying for the time being, under a request by the Iraqi government and according to the international resolutions," he said.
Dannatt said his criticism of postwar planning in Iraq as "poor," and his concerns about troops being stretched by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, had been voiced by others. Retired senior officers have raised those concerns, but they bore more weight coming from a serving officer at Dannatt's level.
Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said Dannatt's position was "diametrically different" from government policy. If Dannatt says "soon," Campbell added, "should that not now be measured in a matter of months rather than years?"
John Rees, a founder of the Stop the War Coalition, which organized mass marches in London before the invasion, said: "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."
Since March 2003, 119 British soldiers have died in Iraq.
Divisions about the war have led to the resignation of two members of Blair's Cabinet and severely dented the prime minister's popularity.
Dannatt said his interview with the Daily Mail was mainly about Afghanistan.
"It was certainly not my intention in a very general background interview ... to have this hoo-ha which people have thoroughly enjoyed overnight and tried to suggest that there is a chasm between myself as head of the army and the prime minister," Dannatt said.
The newspaper declined to release a full text of the interview.
The Daily Mail, which posted Dannatt's remarks on its Web site Thursday night, quoted the general as saying that, while Iraqis might have welcomed coalition forces following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the good will has evaporated.
"Our presence exacerbates the security problems," the Daily Mail quoted Dannatt as saying. "Whatever consent we may have had in the first place ... has largely turned to intolerance."
The Defense Ministry responded to the Daily Mail interview by saying: "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 U.N. mandate."
Blair's official spokesman told reporters in Scotland, where Blair is involved in Northern Ireland talks, that the general had the prime minister's full support.
While insisting that Britain would stay the course in Iraq, Dannatt told the BBC: "We need to keep thinking about time because time is against us. Because time is money, time is particularly soldiers and soldiers' lives, and we cannot go on forever."