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Whispering campaign against General who spoke up against Blair

London Evening Standard | October 16 2006

Britain's top General was the subject of a vicious Whitehall whispering campaign yesterday as Labour ministers furious at his devastating outburst over Iraq called for him to be sacked.

Despite Tony Blair being forced to back General Sir Richard Dannatt publicly on Friday over his blunt assessment of Britain's mission in Iraq, there were growing fears that the head of the Army could yet fall victim to a political backlash.

In behind-the-scenes briefings yesterday senior ministers claimed the General should be dismissed. They condemned his explosive public statements as a 'mistake' which must not be allowed to happen again.

However opinion polls revealed the political risks facing the Government as three quarters of the public said they agreed with Sir Richard and that he should keep his job.

Downing Street was left seething by the senior commander's explosive interview in Friday's Daily Mail, in which the Chief of the General Staff warned that UK troops in Iraq were 'exacerbating the security problems' facing Britain around the world, and must leave 'soon' - driving a coach and horses through Tony Blair's foreign policy.

He condemned planning for the post-war occupation as 'poor', and claimed hopes of creating a liberal democracy in Iraq were 'naive.' Within hours he gave a series of broadcast interviews, prompted by a late-night phone call from Defence Secretary Des Browne.

But rather than apologising he went even further, warning of the risk that the Iraq mission could 'break' the Army. The Prime Minister appeared wrong-footed and outmanoeuvred, and faced with an overwhelming wave of support for Sir Richard from MPs and the armed forces.

Mr Blair was reduced to playing down the schism, agreeing with the General's more palatable comments while trying to ignore the most explosive.

But yesterday brought the first signs of a serious Government backlash, raising grave questions about Sir Richard's future.

One Cabinet minister speaking anonymously to a Sunday newspaper said: 'He should be sacked. His comments were utterly unacceptable for someone in his position.'

Another minister said: 'Dannatt was an accident waiting to happen. He should not be allowed to make another mistake.

'How can we expect our troops to risk their lives in Iraq when their commanding officer is questioning their presence there?'

Former cabinet minister David Blunkett, who remains close to Mr Blair, criticised Sir Richard for 'trying to introduce a new constitutional element' by 'interfering' with the Government's decisions, rather than simply carrying them out.

Another Government source said of Sir Richard: 'It is not his job to criticise Government policy. He needs to get back in his box and shut up. His next mistake will be his last.'

The hostile comments raise real doubts over whether Sir Richard's working relationship with the Government can be patched up. His post as head of the Army has no official time limit. His predecessor General Sir Mike Jackson served for three-and-a-half years, whereas Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, overall head of UK armed forces during the 2003 Iraq invasion, quit after barely two years following a series of run-ins with politicians.

Army insiders now fear Sir Richard's position could become impossible even sooner. There was more measured criticism from some opposition figures yesterday who claimed the General had overstepped the constitutional mark.

Former Liberal Democrat leader and ex-soldier Paddy Ashdown said: 'He may be accurate in what he said, he may be cheered to the echo in the Army, 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.'

He said military chiefs who opposes Government policy should resign rather than 'blurt out' their disagreements.

Former Tory foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind suggested Sir Richard would receive a 'two strikes' warning, adding: 'What he said was right, but it's not for a general any more than it is for a civil servant to express what are in fact political views.'

He told GMTV's Sunday Programme: 'Serving officers are not, I'm afraid, able to have that kind of freedom.'

Meanwhile in Iraq itself senior officials agreed that British troops should leave sooner rather than later.

A spokesman for the governor Basra Mohammed al Wail said: 'It's true they saved us from Saddam Hussein, but that war is over. We believe their continuing presence makes the security situation worse.'

In Afghanistan there were growing signs of the shortages Sir Richard referred to, as officials admitted the MOD was looking to charter civilian helicopters to ease the strain on the force of just eight Chinook transport helicopters currently trying to support 5,600 British soldiers on the ground.

In theory the civilian aircraft would be used for routine supply movements and kept away from the 'frontline', although in reality aircraft face risk of attack virtually anywhere in Afghanistan.

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