LONDON – Britain's new army chief called for a withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, warning that the military's presence there only exacerbates security problems, according to an interview published Thursday.
Gen. Richard Dannatt described British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Iraq policies as "naive," declaring that while Iraqis might have welcomed coalition forces following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the good will has since evaporated after years of violence.
The British military should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems," Dannatt said in an interview with the Daily Mail released on the tabloid's Web site. "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 British government has not yet set a timetable for the departure of its 7,500 troops from Iraq.
The Defense Ministry responded to the 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 office referred all questions to the Defense Ministry.
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. Dannatt took over as army commander in late August.
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 Blair's support for the U.S.-led action.
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 Britain's presence in the country was worsening security problems domestically too, contrary to Blair's claims that the war in Iraq had no link to the terror threat facing Britain. Such fears have been heightened since last year's terror attacks on London's transport system that killed 52 people and four suicide bombers.
"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," he said.
"We are in a Muslim country and Muslims' views of foreigners in their country are quite clear," he said. "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."
Dannatt was severely critical of British and American planning for postwar Iraq, describing the rationale behind the invasion as flawed.
"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," he said.
"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."
The comments come at a time when British defense officials are facing growing criticism on a number of fronts. In Afghanistan, Britain has suffered a number of casualties recently as the army continues its tough battle against the resurgent Taliban in the south of the country. Thirty British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since July.
Since March 2003, 119 British soldiers have died in Iraq.
The general's comments polarized opinion among lawmakers and military personnel.
Former Defense Secretary Douglas Hogg questioned his motives.
"One can only assume that Sir Richard has made his views known privately and that they've been ignored," he told the British Broadcasting Corp. "I think the government needs to very quickly make it clear what the position is."
Maj. Gen. Patrick Cordingly, a former British military commander in the 1991 Gulf War, told the BBC the army chief's opinion was "enormously pragmatic" and may be welcomed by some soldiers who have served several tours of duty in Iraq.
"I think it is a very brave thing for him to say. I do agree. I think there comes a time when you have got to let Iraq get on and look after its own security," he said.