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As US surges, British start exiting Iraq

By Mark Rice-Oxley, / February 22, 2007


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.

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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.

From 7,100 to 4,000 in 2007

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.