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Last Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
A chasm impossible to close?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News Website

General Sir Richard Dannatt
Sir Richard thinks British troops should leave Iraq "sometime soon"
Army chief General Sir Richard Dannatt claims there is not a cigarette paper's gap between him and Tony Blair over Iraq.

And, in comments following Sir Richard's controversial Daily Mail interview, it certainly appears that the two men are in complete agreement - as the prime minister insists.

However, neither has referred to the original remarks which sparked the row, and which Sir Richard later explained.

And it is that newspaper article which still represents a significant difference of emphasis, to say the least, from the prime minister's views on Iraq and its future.

Just imagine that Sir Richard's original comments had come from the prime minister. They would have been explosive.

Imagine the prime minister had suggested - no matter how obliquely - that British troops were exacerbating security problems in Iraq and elsewhere.

That their withdrawal should start sometime soon, that ambitions for the country's future should be lowered and that the invasion's political aims may have been na´ve.

And that is what Sir Richard stated. Had the prime minister put things as bluntly as that, it would have represented one of the greatest reversals in recent political history.

Long-term presence

Tony Blair and his defence secretary, Des Browne, continue to use very different language - suggesting the British presence in Iraq may last for years, that there will be no hint of withdrawal until the country can be handed over to Iraqi forces, at the country's request, and that the whole point of the exercise is to ensure the creation of a well-governed, democratic state.

A British army patrol in Basra in southern Iraq

So there is clearly more than a cigarette paper's gap here and, even in the light of Sir Richard's and Tony Blair's later apparent consensus, it is a chasm that will remain difficult to entirely close.

Opponents of the war have seized on the sections of Sir Richard's interviews which appear to support their demands for troop withdrawal, and the belief that the British presence in Iraq is exacerbating the security situation both there and elsewhere in the world.

The latter is a criticism that has been thrown at the government since before the invasion and which, it is regularly claimed, has since proved tragically accurate.

To have the man in charge of the Army apparently confirming the view is about the most powerful boost possible to those arguing it is time to start bringing the troops home.

Anti-war campaigner Reg Keys, for example, has welcomed the comments, has spoken of Sir Richard's integrity and courage in speaking his mind, and has repeated his own demand for an exit strategy from Iraq.


And the prime minister appears to have been equally selective in the remarks from Sir Richard that he has highlighted as evidence of their agreement.

None of that, however, will do anything to diminish the impact of Sir Richard's Daily Mail interview, which has re-opened all the old wounds over Iraq - the issue that, as each day passes, seems more likely than ever to be Tony Blair's lasting legacy.

Demands for a detailed exit strategy will now grow.

Tony Blair has once again found himself being forced back onto the issue he has been attempting to draw a line under for months - most notably by hardly mentioning it in his final Labour conference speech.

And, perhaps, it will even add to the view that the only way there can be some sort of "closure" to this issue will be through a change of prime minister "sometime soon".

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