British Official Sees No Early Exit From Iraq

by Lizette Alvarez
January 5, 2004    LONDON, Jan. 5 ? Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said today that British troops would stay in Iraq for years, perhaps as late as 2007, to help restore that country's security and stability.    In an interview ...
January 5, 2004

LONDON, Jan. 5 ? Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said today that British troops would stay in Iraq for years, perhaps as late as 2007, to help restore that country's security and stability.

In an interview on BBC radio, Mr. Straw said he could not offer a precise time for the withdrawal of the troops. "I can't say whether it's going to be 2006, 2007," he said, but added, "It's not going to be months, for sure."

American and British officials have been vague about how long troops will be stationed in Iraq, speaking only of a long-term commitment to the country. Making his case for an extended military stay, Mr. Straw said that it was essential for coalition forces to remain in Iraq for years to come to oversee that country's rehabilitation.

But Mr. Straw noted that any decision to maintain troops in Iraq for the long haul must be agreed to by Iraq's new government.

Comparing the situation to the one in Afghanistan, where foreign troops have been stationed for two and a half years, Mr. Straw said that coalition forces would play a vital role in helping Iraq form and foster a new political process.

"If we were suddenly to pull out, there would be unquestionably a security vacuum that would no only put lives at risk and cause a loss of life but would also be a setback for the political process," he said.

His remarks came one day after Prime Minister Tony Blair paid a surprise morale-lifting visit to British troops in Basra.

Mr. Straw said that coalition forces continued to work toward a July 1 deadline for handing power over to the Iraqi authorities. "It is one of the things that has helped gradually to change the political environment in Iraq," he said. "People can now see it is only now less than seven months that there is going to be a time, very shortly, where Iraqis will be responsible for their own security and their own governance."

Asked whether he believed that Osama bin Laden had made the audiotapes that were broadcast on Sunday by the Arab satellite network Al Jazeera, Mr. Straw said that it was a safe assumption but that he had no confirmation.

On the tape, a man purporting to be Mr. bin Laden urges Muslims to continue their jihad against the enemies of Islam, particularly those in Iraq.

"My message is to incite you against the conspiracies, especially those uncovered by the occupation of the crusaders in Baghdad under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction," the speaker said.

Mr. Straw said that "there is no question" that Al Qaeda and its networks are still operating and that Mr. bin Laden is still alive.

"Searching for him remains a key issue," the foreign secretary said.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company