LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected calls Wednesday to withdraw British forces from Iraq by October, then dodged a blistering debate in Parliament in which there was almost unanimous condemnation of the war and little optimism for a U.S. plan to boost its troop presence in Baghdad.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett suggested that British troops might complete the transfer 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 that it would be wrong to commit to any date to end Britain's military role.
"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, Blair departed before the first full debate on the Iraq war in the House of Commons since 2004.
Beckett and her junior ministers were left to confront the collective frustrations of Parliament members dismayed over the worsening chaos in Iraq, angered that the conflict had 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 U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
"There is no government in Iraq.... It's Martin Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York' that we've installed in Baghdad," said George Galloway, a lawmaker 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 would be in danger if Israel or the U.S. launched 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 outnumbered British soldiers held off Zulu warriors in South Africa.
The Conservative Party's shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, was one of many critical of Blair's decision to attend a conference of business leaders instead of the debate.
"It is unimaginable that an Attlee, a Callaghan, a Churchill or a Thatcher would not have been here to debate a situation in war," he said, referring to former prime ministers.
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.
But British officials are already worried that the U.S. plan could affect Britain's hopes of withdrawing by year's end, with some expressing worries 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 lawmaker.
"The emerging new attitude of government in this country of humility is appropriate in acknowledging that government cannot do it all," said Harry Cohen, another Labor lawmaker. "But humility is not enough. Bravery is needed. And courage -- the courage to leave."
Several Conservative Party lawmakers backed Blair's contention that committing to a timetable for withdrawal is unwise and, as Parliament member John Baron said, "would only act as a spur for insurgents to have a goal."
"But we do need to scale down our ambitions," Baron said. "We are no longer in a position, if we ever were, to establish a functioning democracy in Iraq."