- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

LONDON — A top general’s retreat from a call for an early exit from Iraq has done little to ease the damage to Prime Minister Tony Blair, with public pressure building for the early withdrawal of British troops.

Former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind of the opposition Conservative Party announced he was putting together a multiparty group of lawmakers to demand a full-day debate on Iraq.

“It is a disgrace that the House of Commons has not been allowed a full debate on Iraq since 2004,” Mr. Rifkind said.

House leader Jack Straw, who previously served as Mr. Blair’s foreign secretary, has rejected requests for an Iraq debate.

Gen. Richard Dannatt, the British army’s chief of the general staff since August, said in a newspaper interview last week that British forces should “get ourselves out sometime soon,” warning that “we are in a Muslim country, and Muslims’ views of foreigners in their country are quite clear.”

Gen. Dannatt backed down a day later by saying that the words “sometime soon” meant two to three years, and that he and Mr. Blair share the same views.

An opinion poll indicates that nearly three-quarters of Britons think the general got it right the first time.

The survey in London’s Sunday Express newspaper indicated that 74 percent of Britons agreed with the general’s assessment that the time to get out was “sometime soon.”

The poll also showed that 71 percent thought Gen. Dannatt was right in asserting that the continuing presence of British troops was worsening the security crisis.

Mr. Blair insists that there is not a “cigarette paper” of difference between himself and Gen. Dannatt, and that British forces will stay as long as it takes to finish the job of pacification and democratization of Iraq. Left unsaid was exactly how long either thought that would take.

It is the general’s use of the phrase “sometime soon” that has triggered the latest wave of fear that Britain is caught up with the United States in an unfolding disaster.

John McDonnell, who has said he intends to run for the leadership of the ruling Labor Party when Mr. Blair steps down as prime minister within the next year, called for a timetable to be set within the next week to withdraw Britain’s forces.

“In the name of reason and humanity,” Mr. McDonnell said, “the government must act and bring forward an exit strategy,” adding that “the government appears to be paralyzed by indecision on this.”

Conservative Party leader David Cameron, the favorite in political polls to become prime minister in Britain’s next general election, has remained silent over the explosive issue, but his defense spokesman, Liam Fox, told reporters that British troops “could not remain [in Iraq] for an indefinite time.”

Also lining up against the prime minister is Menzies Campbell, leader of the smaller opposition Liberal Democrat Party.

Mr. Campbell said that the Blair government, which named Gen. Dannatt chief of the general staff, “has got an overwhelming obligation to listen to what he has to say.”

“If the military are now voicing these concerns, we can’t ignore them. I think we now need a clear exit strategy,” said Geraldine Smith, a Labor member of Parliament. “We are in a position where we could possibly be doing more harm than good by being there.”

Mr. Blair is adamant that British forces will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan as long as necessary.

At his monthly press conference Tuesday, he said, “If we walk away before the job is done … we will leave a situation in which the very people we are fighting everywhere, including the extremism in our own country, are heightened and emboldened, and we can’t afford to let that happen.”

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