LONDON – Britain's new army chief has called for British troops to withdraw from Iraq "soon," warning that the military's presence there only exacerbates security problems, according to a published interview.
But in another interview on Friday, Gen. Richard Dannatt denied any rift between himself and Prime Minister Tony Blair on Iraq, and said that some of his remarks reported by the Daily Mail newspaper had been misunderstood.
He said he was "standing shoulder to shoulder" with American forces in Iraq, and was planning force deployments there for 2007 and into the following year.
"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.
The British government has not yet set a timetable for the departure of its 7,500 troops from Iraq.
Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the general's comments undermined the government's position.
"When he says 'soon' in relation to Britain withdrawing should that now be measured in a matter of months rather than years?" said Campbell, whose party is the third-largest in the House of Commons
"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.
"I'm sorry to disappoint. It's not my intention. My intention is particularly to speak up for what is right for the army. That is my job. That is my constituency."
The Daily Mail, which released its interview on its Web site Thursday night, quoted Dannatt as saying that while Iraqis might have welcomed coalition forces following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the good will has evaporated.
The British military should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems," the Mail quoted him as saying.
"Whatever consent we may have had in the first place" from the Iraqi people "has largely turned to intolerance," he was quoted as saying.
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."
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."
Since March 2003, 119 British soldiers have died in Iraq.
Britain's involvement in Iraq was divisive from the outset. There were massive anti-war marches in London before the invasion, and two Cabinet ministers quit the government to protest policy in Iraq.
The general's comments may signal an increasing boldness among senior military officials who fear that the army is overstretched on two fronts — Afghanistan and Iraq. Other commanders have been quoted as saying the military needs to provide greater support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dannatt said British and American planning for postwar Iraq was poor, "probably based more on optimism than sound planning."
"The original intention was that we put in place a liberal democracy that was an exemplar for the region, was pro-West and might have a beneficial effect on the balance within the Middle East.
"That was the hope, whether that was a sensible or naive hope history will judge. I don't think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition."