LONDON -- Former US secretary of state Colin Powell said yesterday that it would be a tragic mistake to pull US troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible.
In an interview with the BBC, Powell also said that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney had gone behind his back directly to President Bush ahead of the US-led invasion in March 2003.
But he said the United States owed it to the Iraqi people to keep its troops there as long as they were needed, and could be involved in Iraq for years to come.
''I don't think that the United States military at its current strength can sustain this level of deployment for an extended period of time," Powell said. ''So one way or the other I think a drawdown will begin in 2006," he said.
''But essentially just to walk away, to say that we're taking all of our troops out as fast as we can, would be a tragic mistake," said Powell, a retired general and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
Powell said the United States had invested a great deal in Iraq and said the Iraqi people deserved the freedom and democracy they were promised after Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
''We have to stay with them until they decide . . . they don't need us any longer. And even then, I suspect, there will be a continuing relationship and presence of some significance for some years to come."
Powell also backed comments made by his former chief of staff Larry Wilkerson that he had sometimes been cut out of decisions taken by Rumsfeld and Cheney in the run-up to the war.
''Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney and I occasionally would have strong differing views on matters. And when that was the case we argued them out, we fought them out, in bureaucratic ways," he said.
''Now what Larry [Wilkerson] is suggesting in his comments is that very often maybe Mr. Rumsfeld and the Vice President Cheney would take decisions into the president that the rest of us weren't aware of. That did happen, on a number of occasions.
''Mr. Rumsfeld and I had some serious discussions, of a not pleasant kind, about the use of individuals who could bring expertise to the issue [of postwar planning]. It ultimately went to the White House and the rest is well known."
On another topic, Powell said that the controversial practice of rendition -- moving terrorism suspects from one country to another -- is not new and European governments should not be surprised by it. Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice was forced to defend the practice during a recent trip to Europe.