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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's army chief said he stood by his comments that British troops should leave Iraq soon because their presence was worsening security, but he insisted on Friday this did not represent a split with the government.
Chief of the General Staff Richard Dannatt sparked a controversy when he told Friday's Daily Mail newspaper that postwar planning for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was "poor" and the presence of troops there was hurting British security globally.
Dannatt said: "I don't say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq, but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them.
"I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."
He added, Britain should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems".
Hours after Dannatt's interview appeared, he made radio and television appearances to calm the political storm. He said his remarks were taken out of context but he did not deny them.
"It was never my intention to have this hoo-ha, which people have thoroughly enjoyed overnight, trying to suggest there is a chasm between myself and the prime minister," he told BBC radio.
He told Sky News: "I have withdrawn none of the comments that I have made. I have given a little more explanation about what I meant by `some time soon'. That's not backtracking."
Britain has 7,200 troops in Iraq. As Washington's main Iraq war ally, Blair originally sent 46,000 troops to join the invasion in the country's biggest deployment since the Korean War half a century ago. Since March 2003, 113 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq.
Blair told a news conference in Scotland that having read the newspaper interview and transcripts of remarks Dannatt made to the media there was no division between them.
"What he is saying about wanting the British forces out of Iraq is precisely the same as we are all saying," Blair said. "Our strategy is to withdraw from Iraq when the job is done."
"The reason that we have been able to give up two provinces now to Iraqi control is precisely because the job has been done there," he added, noting that Basra was still not secure which was why British forces remained in place.
Iraq government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said U.S. and British troops were still needed.
"The Iraqi government and the Iraqi people don't want foreign troops to stay in Iraq indefinitely. But we believe the British and Americans are playing a positive role in Iraq and that their presence is necessary to control the security issue."
A British military source in Basra said Dannatt's comments referred to Maysan province -- one of two regions controlled by British forces. He said co-operation with local residents was better in Basra region.
Asked if Dannatt's comments had hurt troop morale, he said: "He is a popular man. He is a soldier's soldier and he tells things the way they are."
But the remarks were seized upon by anti-war campaigners. Reg Keys, whose son died in Iraq, said: "Here you have an officer, at last, who is prepared to speak how it is, and not be a mouthpiece for the delusions of a prime minister."
In Basra locals told Reuters they agreed it was time for them to go. "In the last three years, people started to look at these troops in a different way. They simply hate these troops," said teacher Fatima Ahmed, 35.
STRAIN ON MILITARY
Dannatt said British troops were targets in some places, but were beneficial in others, and insisted he was not proposing an immediate withdrawal. "I'm a soldier. We don't do surrender ... We're going to see this through," he said.
But he added: "I've got an army to look after which is going to be successful in current operations. But I want an army in five years time and 10 years time. Don't let's break it on this one. Lets keep an eye on time."
Britain has launched a large new operation in Afghanistan this year, and commanders have acknowledged that they had hoped they could reduce their force in Iraq faster.
Generals have said they now hope to cut their force in Iraq by half by the middle of next year. They have turned over control of two of the four provinces they patrol to Iraqis.
(Additional reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra, Hiba Moussa and Ibon Villelabeitia in Baghdad and Katherine Baldwin in St Andrews, Scotland)
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