LONDON AND BOSTON — British prime minister Tony Blair announced Wednesday the beginning of the end of British military involvement in Iraq, starting with a 25 percent drawdown before summer.
Denmark also said it would pull all of its 460 ground troops from Iraq by August.
Mr. Blair's decision is, in part, an acknowledgment of the British public's anger over the war and a desire to focus on Afghanistan. Southern Iraq, where British troops operate, is not yet "how we want it to be," Blair said. "But ... the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by Iraqis."
Blair's move isn't likely to help the Bush administration. Fewer British troops in Basra will leave Iran in a stronger position and puts at risk US military supply lines in Iraq, say analysts, at a time of an escalating US-Iranian standoff.
"This is more about Tony Blair's legacy than the situation on the ground,'' says Toby Dodge, an Iraq historian at Queen Mary, University of London. After 10 years in office, Blair is expected to step down some time in the summer, and analysts say, he is eager to say that he finished what he started in Iraq.
Blair said Wednesday that 1,600 of the 7,100-strong force will leave in the coming months, with hundreds more to pull out throughout the summer. In all, 3,000 could be gone by year's end, by which time all four southern provinces that were under the British should have been handed over to Iraqi control. The remaining troops will shift roles, taking a more discreet, remote approach inside their base at Basra airport, as the Iraqi security forces take on day-to-day security matters.
This is "a recognition that the British forces have done whatever good they're going to be able to do in southern Iraq,'' says Michael Clarke, a defense expert at King's College, London. "It's not the same as saying the job is done."
But removing British troops will not please the White House, coming as it does on the heels of President Bush's decision to "surge" 21,000 more US troops into Baghdad and Anbar Province and the president's assertions that Iran is responsible for much of the violence inside Iraq.
"There is no doubt that any British troop reduction that is not coordinated with a US reduction weakens the image of the coalition and further isolates the US,'' Anthony Cordesman, the former director of intelligence analysis for the Defense Department and now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote Wednesday. "This is a war of perceptions, as well as military power, and the influence of the British cuts will be negative."
Basra's problems are very different from Baghdad's. In the southern port city, British troops have seen bullying and execution of political opponents by the dominant Shiite militias in the city rather than the sectarian civil war that rages in the capital. There is no city in Iraq where Iran has more influence, which means the Islamic Republic may be better placed to strike out at American assets through local proxies. One concern: US military supply lines running north from Kuwait could be at greater risk, especially if the bellicose rhetoric between Tehran and Washington escalates.
A spokesman for Mr. Bush's National Security Council said that "we're pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis." But some analysts say that is largely political spin, pointing out that Basra is as troubled today as it was a year ago.
In the nearly four years that British troops have been responsible for Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, Shiite militias have co-opted the police and many of the city's political institutions while British forces have been increasingly confined to their bases.
There are two major political militias in the city – one close to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, another to the Fadila Islamic party of his rival Muhammad Yaqubi – as well as a number of smaller gangs that engage in tribal extortion and kidnap for ransom.
"The British certainly aren't doing what the Americans want them to,'' says Mr. Dodge.
But senior British officers have been arguing that Britain's commitment to Afghanistan, which many see as a more important mission than Iraq, is stretching their forces thin. Last fall, the British general, Sir Richard Dannatt, said he supported withdrawal from Iraq because the British presence in Basra appeared to be aggravating the local population.
In September 2005, British forces assaulted the main jail in Basra to release two soldiers detained by the Basra police. Basra's governor called Britain's actions "barbaric and irresponsible." Though extreme, that is not the only case of enmity between the British and Iraqi security forces they're training.
In his speech Wednesday, Blair appeared to agree with General Dannatt's point. He said that unlike Baghdad, relatively homogenous Basra – it has many Sunnis, but not in sufficient numbers to challenge the Shiites – has little sectarian violence, no Al Qaeda presence and no Sunni insurgents. "The bulk of the attacks are on the multinational force,'' he said, the inference being that the removal of troops would stem the violence.
Britain's approach for more than two years has been one of conciliation and compromise with local militia leaders. British officers in the south have said privately that approach was largely dictated by the small size of their force – making the option of going to war with the Shiite militias unattractive.
At the moment, Britain's 7,100 troops in the south equal one soldier for every 451 residents of Basra and the neighboring Maysan Province, also under British control. A new manual for counterinsurgency written by senior US generals argues for about 20 troops for every 1,000 residents, which in the case of southern Iraq would mean about 70,000 British troops.
"The British long ago essentially ceded the two provinces they control ... to Shiite Islamist factions,'' writes Mr. Cordesman. "The British cuts will in many ways simply reflect the reality that the British 'lost' the south more than a year ago. The Shiites will take over, Iranian influence will expand, and more Sunnis, Christians, and other minorities will leave."
Dodge argues that Britain is well aware of this and is deciding to simply get out of the way of what looks to be a messier conflict.
"The big fear is that the British in the south will be hostages to US policy toward Iran,'' says Dodge. "There is a link between [British] casualties in the south and rising tensions with Iran. What Iran has effectively done is infiltrate its people and bought influence and kept the pan boiling."
British casualties have been light compared with American ones: the British have lost 34 troops in the past two years, compared to 996 US deaths. But the trend has inched upward since last fall, according to statistics compiled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent website that tracks Iraq casualties.
In the past six months, 17 British troops have been killed. In the six months prior to that period, 12 British soldiers were killed. And in the six months prior to that, 10 were killed.
Mr. Clarke of King's College says that Britain is less worried about expanded US conflict with Iran and more concerned about what's possible given the small size of its Army. "What is at the forefront," he says, "is the idea that keeping major forces in Iraq for the long-term future is impossible."