By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
LONDON, March 13 -- Conservative Party leader David Cameron on Tuesday said he was "skeptical" of President Bush's "surge" of troops into Iraq, saying sectarian bloodshed could be curbed only through political negotiations among Iraq's rival ethnic and religious groups.
"It is going to be very difficult to ask British and American troops to somehow disarm Sunni militias and Shia militias," Cameron, one of Britain's most popular politicians, said in an interview. "This is something we have to encourage the Iraqis to do themselves."
Cameron's comments were in sharp contrast to those by Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, who in a separate interview said that U.S.-led security operations in Baghdad were already starting to yield results.
Cameron said Prime Minister Tony Blair had not been "frank" enough with Britons about the situation in Iraq, where he said establishing basic security was a more pressing priority than building democracy. Echoing recent comments by Gen. Richard Dannatt, head of the British army, Cameron said that Iraq "is not going to be a fully functioning, Western-style democracy" and that Britain, the United States and their allies will ultimately have to accept "some pretty second-best solutions" there.
"We've got to be frank about this," Cameron, who consistently tops opinion polls about candidates for prime minister, said in his office overlooking the Thames River. "Yes, we want the maximum amount of democracy possible. But security and order have got to come first."
Beckett said that British troops based around Basra, in southern Iraq, had been largely successful by taking control of the city neighborhood-by-neighborhood and maintaining security. In each area, she said, they trained police and made improvements -- cleaning police stations, laying water lines, refurbishing schools and planting date palm trees.
"What we found was that people in areas of the city where we weren't in were saying, 'When are you going to come here?' " she said. While stressing the differences between the relative calm of Basra and the more violent streets of Baghdad, Beckett said, "My understanding is we are beginning to see something of the same kind of phenomenon with the American troops going into Baghdad."
"I've heard that we've even seen a few people moving back into the areas in Baghdad, for instance, where some of the security work and development has taken place," she said. "Again, on a small scale, but it's better than going the other way."
Beckett also attributed the violence in Iraq to "really quite a small number of people who are embarked on this senseless butchery and this spiral of revenge and reprisal."
Britain has been the most steadfast U.S. ally in the war in Iraq. Just as the war has grown increasingly unpopular in the United States, a strong majority of Britons oppose the war. Blair's close alliance with Bush has cost him dearly in public opinion polls.
Beckett acknowledged that the Iraq war had damaged her government's popularity, but she said she believed Iraq was no longer the top concern of many Britons. "If you ask people what are their top issues of concern, Iraq's not necessarily as high on the list as you would think," she said.
While Blair has remained enthusiastically supportive of the war, he and Bush have taken different tacks recently. As Bush was announcing an increase of 21,500 combat troops, Blair's government announced that it intended to reduce its troop presence in Iraq in the coming months from 7,100 to about 5,500. Analysts in Britain said the move allows Blair to assert a measure of independence from Washington during his final months in office. Blair has said he will step down by September at the latest, after a decade in office, and many analysts expect him to step aside sometime this summer.
Despite their divergent assessments, Beckett and Cameron were united in their opposition to an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq or a specific timetable for withdrawal. Both said they supported diplomatic efforts to discuss Iraq with Iran and Syria, and both said they wanted to see a rapid buildup of the Iraqi police and military, and responsibility for Iraq's security turned over to Iraqis as soon as possible.
"I want to see Britain backing up America," Cameron said, adding that he is "fairly supportive" of Blair's policies in Iraq. "I don't seek to find divisions on this issue. I think the national interest is served by us working together. . . . All of us who supported the war have a responsibility to get this right."