An exit strategy which is far too late

AS the death toll among Iraqis caught up in a bloody civil war continues to mount at an alarming but totally predictable rate, US President George Bush and Tony Blair are desperately trying to write an exit strategy 3½ years too late.

By Graham Dines

AS the death toll among Iraqis caught up in a bloody civil war continues to mount at an alarming but totally predictable rate, US President George Bush and Tony Blair are desperately trying to write an exit strategy 3½ years too late.

The President, who is facing a hostile Congress following November's mid-term election, is under urgent pressure to sort out the mess in Iraq following a scathing bi-partisan commission report that says his war policies have failed and “time is running out”.

The Iraq Study Group's report said the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating” after nearly four years of bloodshed and more than 2,900 American deaths. Even a White House acknowledges all is not well. “It's clear that the present situation is not one that could be sustained or accepted,” said White


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The Study Group's recommendations ranged from gradually withdrawing US combat forces during the next year to increasing the training of Iraqi security forces to enlisting diplomatic help from Iraq's neighbours - not only to resolve problems in Iraq but to find an end to the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

“The American people have spoken,” says incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group has spoken. They have all demanded a change of course in Iraq, and the Bush administration must listen.”

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Mr Blair, whose date with the Metropolitan Police over the cash-for-ermine inquiries cannot be put off much longer, arrived in Washington this week with the stinging rebuke of Britain's former top soldier hitting the headlines.

General Sir Mike Jackson, who retired as head of the Army in August, used the BBC's annual Dimbleby Lecture to lash out at the underfunding of the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There is a mismatch between what we do and the resources we are given with which to do it.”

His speech, although written before the Chancellor's Pre-Budget Report in which Gordon Brown pledged an extra £600m for the armed forces, nevertheless was a timely reminder that our troops on the ground, many of whom are based in Colchester, must be given the equipment if the job is to be done with minimum casualties.

General Jackson did however stamp on any “cut and run” from Iraq and Afghanistan. Failure to see through the campaigns to their proper conclusion would be morally wrong and a disaster.

Mr Blair doesn't want failure in Iraq to be his legacy. Equally, his successor will want most, if not all, of our forces to have withdrawn before they fight an election to win their own mandate.

BULGARIA'S EAST ANGLIA CHEERLEADERS

ESSEX county council leader Lord Hanningfield is to hold a parliamentary reception next month to mark the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union.

Bulgaria's path into the EU was smoothed by East of England Conservative Euro MP Geoffrey Van Orden, who acted as the European Parliament's observer as the impoverished Balkan state made the case for EU membership.

Speaking in the Parliament during a debate on Bulgaria, Mr Van Orden said Bulgarians were “overjoyed, after years of communist oppression, to be joining the western clubs of free nations - first NATO and now the EU.

“Enlargement is one of the good things about the EU. It extends the area of stability and prosperity across Europe and distances troubled areas further from our shores. At the same time, widening of the EU means less deepening. It makes the creation of an integrated, federal state in Europe increasingly difficult and the Conservative objective of a looser community of sovereign nations more achievable.

“On the migration issue, my report makes it clear that this is a matter for the British government. The European Parliament has agreed my view that it is chaotic asylum and immigration policies over many years in Britain and elsewhere, largely unrelated to EU enlargement, which is the real problem. I want tight border controls and an end to uncontrolled immigration.”

He paid tribute to Essex charity Harvest for the Hungry which has provided help for a school for underprivileged children and for the hospital in the Berkovitsa area of Bulgaria. I have insisted that the Bulgarian authorities target more resources to overcoming the problems of child welfare. As 'observer' I have also been able to force the pace of change in many other areas, including the fight against organised crime.

However, he was criticised by the East of England's two UKIP Euro MPs Jeffrey Titford and Tom Wise. In a joint statement, they said: “We have just listened to Mr van Orden wax lyrical in the European Parliament on the need for Bulgaria to join the European Union. We heard how it is imperative for democracy that they be given a chance to join the elite in the West, having been trapped in the Soviet Empire for 50 years.

“Is this the same man who would have us believe that he is as sceptical about the future and reality of the European Union as we are? Yes, it is.”

SUFFOLK CHRISTMAS TREE SHINES IN DOWNING STREET

THE magic of Christmas lit up Downing Street on Wednesday when medical miracle child Kirsty Howard joined the Prime Minister's wife to turn on the lights of the tree which comes from the Rougham estate in Suffolk. Kirsty, who is 11, is the only British child and one of only two worldwide to be born with a back-to-front heart. Given six weeks to live, after nine major operations she continues to defy medical odds and she has raised more than £5m to save a children's hospice in Manchester.

It's the third time the tree - this year's is an 18 year-old 17feet Norway spruce - has come from Rougham. The estate stepped is at the last moment when the winner of the annual British Christmas Tree Growers' Association was unable to provide the gift.

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