Local Time

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Troops will be out of Iraq in 16 months, Blair tells Commons

By Toby Helm, Chief Political Correspondent
(Filed: 19/10/2006)


Audio: Colonel Tim Collins on the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq(go to the website and click this for the audio)

Tony Blair set a 16-month limit for keeping British troops in Iraq yesterday as he admitted for the first time that they would be a "provocation" if they stayed too long.

Under mounting pressure from senior military and political figures to offer an end date to the allied presence, he told MPs at Prime Minister's Questions that to withdraw before "the job is done" would be "disastrous".

David Cameron reduced Tory support for the Government and accused him of hiding the truth about Iraq but Mr Blair moved to reassure MPs that troops would be out by early 2008.

It was British policy to "withdraw progressively" when Iraq's own security forces were able to take over.

Quoting from a statement by Gen George Casey, the US coalition commander, Mr Blair said: "I don't have the date but I can see over the next 12 to 18 months the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country.

"That is the policy of ourselves, our allies — not just America — but the other 20 or so countries there."

Mr Cameron had seized on comments last week from Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, who claimed that the presence of British troops in some parts of Iraq was exacerbating the violence. Sir Richard also called for troops to be pulled out "some time soon".

The Tory leader asked Mr Blair if he agreed with the general's views.

"When the Prime Minister says he wants to get the job done we need to know what he means. It is no use the Chief of the General Staff saying one thing and him saying another thing."

Mr Blair insisted he would not change the overall strategy of keeping troops in Iraq to help establish democracy but accepted that there would be a limit to the time when allied troops were welcome.

"It is our policy to withdraw progressively from Iraq as the Iraqi forces are capable of taking on the security task. That is why it is important when we are able to hand over to them that we do so.

"Otherwise, of course, we are a provocation rather than a help to them."

Attempting to turn the tables on Mr Cameron, Mr Blair added: "I do not want either to dismay our allies or hearten our enemies by suggesting we should do anything else other than stay until the job is done."

Mr Blair and President George W Bush are under pressure from a forthcoming report to Congress that is expected to suggest options for changing course on Iraq. It includes a plan for most US troops to move out, with some staying close by and move back in to extinguish terrorist cells.

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