LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected calls yesterday to withdraw British soldiers from Iraq by October, then dodged a blistering debate in Parliament in which there was almost unanimous condemnation for the war and little optimism for a U.S. plan to boost troop presence in Baghdad.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett suggested that British troops might complete the handover of security responsibilities in southern Iraq to the Iraqi government by November. But she said a withdrawal would depend on "conditions and circumstances."
Blair insisted it would be wrong to commit to any date for ending Britain's military engagement.
"For us to set an arbitrary timetable would send the most disastrous signal to the people whom we are fighting in Iraq," he said. "It is a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is deeply irresponsible."
To a chorus of criticism, he then departed before the start of the first full debate in the House of Commons on the Iraq war since 2004. Beckett and her junior ministers were left to confront the collective frustrations of Parliament members dismayed over the worsening chaos in Iraq, frustrated that the conflict has hurt Britain's ability to act as a credible broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fearful of a new military engagement in Iran.
"The more we attack this war and our presence in Iraq, the more we speak for the British people," said lawmaker Edward Leigh, whose Conservative Party helped Blair win Parliament support for the invasion in 2003.
"There is no government in Iraq. It's Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York that we've installed in Baghdad," complained George Galloway, a deputy who was expelled from Blair's ruling Labor Party after visiting Saddam Hussein in Baghdad before the war.
Beckett, he said, "says we stand by our soldiers. We stand by them so much, we had to pay them a Christmas bonus to make up their wages. Their families are living in houses you wouldn't put a dangerous dog in. We send them ill-armed and ill-equipped on a pack of lies into war after war after war."
Galloway also warned that Britain's 7,100 soldiers in southern Iraq will be endangered if Israel or the U.S. launches a military strike against neighboring Iran.
"The first people to pay the price will be the young men and women of the British armed forces that we have stationed in the south of Iraq where Iran, thanks to us, is now the top dog. You want to know what that will look like? Think of the film Zulu but without the happy ending," he said, referring to the film depicting an 1879 battle in which fewer than 100 British soldiers held off 3,000 Zulu warriors in South Africa.
The debate came a day after President Bush's State of the Union address, in which he reiterated his plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq to help establish security and urged Americans to give the plan a chance to work.
But British officials are already worried that the U.S. "surge" plan could affect Britain's hopes of withdrawing by the end of the year, with some expressing fears that a British drawdown could create a vacuum in southern Iraq into which insurgents displaced in Baghdad could easily flee.
"The tragedy for Iraq, it seems to me, about this U.S. troop surge is that extra troops are no answer to a crisis whose solution is political, but for which there is no political solution, at present, in sight," said Michael Meacher, a Labor deputy.
Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.