A poll published Sunday said 74 percent of Britons agree with a controversial comment by their country’s army chief that British troops should leave Iraq “sometime soon.” He also won the support of several top newspapers.
Gen. Richard Dannatt created a furor last week by saying that British troops should “get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems.”
Britain’s government supported Dannatt, but only after he toured British TV and radio stations in an apparent effort to limit the damage caused by his interview in Daily Mail on Thursday.
In the ICM poll for the Sunday Express, 71 percent said Dannatt was right to issue his warning and that he should not be fired, and 57 percent shared his fear that Muslim extremists were exploiting a “moral and spiritual vacuum” in Britain. Forty-four percent said they want to see a greater role for the British army in combating Islamic terrorism in Britain.
Many members of the British public have called the Iraq war a tragic mistake. It has long been the biggest challenge to the popularity of Blair, who often is accused of being too subservient an ally of U.S. President George W. Bush.
On Sunday, editorials in several major British newspapers praised Dannatt’s assessment of the situation in Iraq.
The general “has broken the spell of Tony Blair’s make-believe,” The Independent said. “British troops should not have been in Iraq in the first place. Their presence is now making the situation worse.”
By comparison, it said, the war in Afghanistan “is morally justified, winnable and under resourced.”
In its editorial, The Observer said that “there are reasons to be queasy about political interventions by generals.” But it also praised Dannatt’s assessment of the situation in Iraq compared to Blair’s.
“When questioned on Iraq, the prime minister retreated behind an ideological vision. He talks about a war between good and evil across continents. The chief of staff, by contrast, is focused on what his soldiers can realistically achieve under a specific set of circumstances,” the paper said.
The Sunday Telegraph said Iraq has “slid into a vicious and destructive civil war between ethnic, tribal and religious factions,” and it praised Dannatt for his “truth,” that British soldiers have become a focus for violent attacks by Iraqis and that they cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely.
Paddy Ashdown, a former leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats and a former Royal Marine, sharply criticized Dannatt for publicly commenting on government policies.
“He may be accurate in what he said …. but he certainly shouldn’t have said it. It’s a clear constitutional breach. It opens up a massive division between him and the government, who have been saying not entirely the opposite, but very, very different things,” Ashdown told Sky TV.
ICM Research interviewed about 1,000 people in a random sample of adults on Oct. 13-14 in a poll with a margin of error of about 3 percentage points.