Sun, Oct 15, 2006 - Page 6 News List

London scrambles to defuse storm over general's Iraq comments

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND

The British government sought on Friday to defuse an embarrassing public debate over remarks by its top military commander that Britain should withdraw its troops from Iraq "sometime soon."

The comments were interpreted by some government critics as a challenge to the authority of Prime Minister Tony Blair since they seemed to be a direct contradiction of his insistence that a retreat from Iraq would be "a craven act of surrender."

The officer, General Sir Richard Dannatt, modified some of his remarks in a series of radio and television interviews to expand on his comments in the Daily Mail tabloid. But he did not completely retract his assessment that the presence of British forces in Iraq "exacerbated" the violence there.

"I have withdrawn none of the comments that I have made," he said in a radio interview. "I have given a little more explanation about what I meant by `sometime soon'; that's not backtracking."

The dispute overshadowed Blair's efforts to wrest a political settlement in Northern Ireland from the province's fractious parties.

At a briefing, Blair's spokesman said the general's remarks following his Daily Mail interview showed there was "not a cigarette paper between" the solider and Blair.

"He said we are going to see this through. He said: I'm on record saying we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans. He also said that he remains committed to the vision of a unitary state in Iraq with a democratically elected government and security forces that underpin that government," the spokesman said, referring to the general.

The spokesman declined to say whether the British authorities had been in touch with the White House over the general's comments, which coincided with other news likely to strengthen opponents of the war.

An inquest in Oxford found on Friday that Terry Lloyd, a British television war correspondent killed in Iraq in March 2003, had been "unlawfully killed" by US forces who opened fire on a vehicle carrying the wounded reporter away from a battlefield.

The coroner in Oxford, Andrew Walker, said the US troops should not have fired on the vehicle. Lloyd was working as a "unilateral" journalist, meaning he was not embedded with the allied forces moving against Saddam Hussein. The inquest saw graphic video footage of the fighting.

Britain's National Union of Journalists called Lloyd's death a "war crime" and Walker said he would write to the attorney general urging him to prosecute the killers.

In the fighting, Lloyd's Lebanese translator, Hussein Osman, also died. Fred Nerac, a French cameraman, is still missing and is presumed dead.

Dannatt's comments drew widespread approval among anti-war legislators and campaigners and on unofficial Web sites used by military bloggers, including soldiers in the field. Britain has some 7,000 troops based primarily around Basra in the south of the country.

In the newspaper interview, Dannatt said that British soldiers should leave Iraq "sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems."

Dannatt told the BBC on Friday morning in a radio interview: "It was never my intention to have this hoo-ha."

"My intention is particularly to speak up for what is right for the Army. That is my job. That is my constituency," he said, apparently alluding to the suggestion by some soldiers that the army is overstretched with major combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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