British Prime Minister Gordon Brown distanced his government decisively from his predecessor's Iraq war policy Monday when he laid out a plan to cut British troops in that country by half by next year. The announcement, made amid massive antiwar protests in London and atop a decision to delay national elections for another year, reflects the pressure on the government to pull out of an unpopular intervention before going to the polls.
Senior government officials called the proposal to halve the number of British troops from 5,000 to less than 2,500 by next spring a "progressive glide path" out of the country, reports the Financial Times.
About 5,000 troops are in Iraq, down from 5,500 at the beginning of September. This will fall to 4,500 as security control in Basra province is handed to Iraqi forces, probably in two months' time. At this stage, Mr. Brown said, Britain would move from a combat to an "overwatch" role – which would have two stages.
In the first, the role would have three main responsibilities: training and mentoring; securing supply routes to Baghdad from Kuwait and helping US forces police the Iran-Iraq border; and going to the aid of Iraqi security forces when called upon. But 500 support and logistics troops would at this point also set up a base in a neighbouring country. Officials said negotiations about the arrangements for a base in Kuwait were continuing.
The government will take more decisions next April, but officials acknowledged that "it was possible British troops could be out of Iraq by the end of next year," said the Financial Times. Mr. Brown put the decision down to progress in the province of Basra in southern Iraq, where British troops are based, describing the situation as "calmer," reports The New York Times.
Since President Bush has made clear that American troops will remain heavily committed in Iraq at least through his administration's end in January 2009, it appears that the tight alliance on Iraq forged between Mr. Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, and Washington is fraying. Indeed, a hallmark of Mr. Brown's three months as prime minister has been the relative distance he has established with the American president.
Last month, The Washington Post reported that Brown has largely stayed away from commenting on the situation in Iraq, and Britian's Blair-led alliance with US President Bush, "which had severely damaged Labor's public popularity."
Unlike Blair's charismatic oratory about Britain's role in world events, Brown seemed determined to refocus the public debate on local issues, including gun crime, drugs and breast cancer screening. He spoke of the "rising aspirations of the British people" and pledged to build more affordable houses and expand reading and math tutoring in public schools.
The BBC reports that by announcing the cut, Mr. Brown was likely seeking to "calm opinion at home – while at the same time reassuring his American and Iraqi allies that he is not cutting and running."
The Scotsman reports that the announcement "cheered Labour MPs alarmed by their party's recent collapse in the opinion polls." But questions were quickly raised about whether this really meant that the troops would be coming home, The Scotsman said.
Yet soldiers, analysts and some MPs predict that the winding down of the UK operation in Basra will coincide with a further intensification of the military campaign in Afghanistan.
Since Britain first announced it was sending troops to Afghanistan, their numbers and British casualties have steadily risen. The death toll stands at 82.
Tory leaders accused Brown of spinning the numbers again, reports The Independent. Last week, Brown had been accused of "cynical media manipulation" when, on a trip to Basra, he suggested that 1,000 British troops would be brought home by Christmas. "It later emerged that the total included the withdrawal of 500 troops which had been previously announced."
Speaking as protesters from the Stop the War coalition defied a ban and waved placards outside the Commons, (Tory Defense spokesman Gerald Howarth) said: "Where has this magic figure of 2,500 come from? What he was trying to do was sow in the minds of the protesters that they will reduce the numbers in Iraq but will they have enough to police the Iranian border, train the Iraqi forces and go back if necessary? We doubt it."
Brown's announcement was followed by rapid media assessments of the British intervention in Iraq. An editorial in the Guardian said the plan for withdrawal was a "realistic one, but it is hardly glorious and it is not accompanied by any explanation of a wider strategy for southern Iraq," coming as it does in the wake of allegations that Brown had delayed elections due to Labour's poor showing in recent polls.
The prime minister's strategy of withdrawal from Iraq is none the less the right one, since he knows that neither domestic nor military opinion can support a large presence in the country for much longer, however much the Americans might want it. But he is making a mistake if he thinks that Britain can claim real success in the country. It is true that the numbers of trained servicemen in southern Iraq has grown and violence has fallen. Violence against British troops has indeed dropped dramatically in Basra, although Iraqi civilians continue to bear the brunt of assassinations and kidnappings. But British troops have had little to do with the partial peace they leave behind. It has been created by political deals with Shia militias.
In June, the Telegraph (London), however, said that the early withdrawal of British troops would be a "mistake." With crime down by 70 percent the situation in Basra was improving, it said, but remained volatile.
Even if, by the end of the year, British forces no longer have responsibility for governing the Iraqis, there is still much work to be done before Iraq's security forces are fully operational to the extent that they can take care of the country's internal security concerns, while protecting its borders from foreign interference, particularly from Iran.
Britain, it should be remembered, remains an important contributor to the US-led coalition's effort to rebuild all of Iraq, not just the four provinces in the south.
The British pullout from Basra earlier this year had been criticized by senior US General Jack Keane. The Telegraph had reported that the general – "the architect of the American troop 'surge' in Baghdad this year" – felt the policy has helped "gangland warfare" in the city. "Privately, some US and British commanders believe that by backing the phased withdrawal and hinting that Afghanistan is a higher priority, Brown is buoying up the morale of insurgents."
Al Jazeera reports that Brown's speech came as a series of bomb attacks in Iraq killed at least 21 people, including 10 civilians near a police station in Baghdad.
Hoda Abdel-Hamid, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Iraq, said a likely consequence of British troop reduction in Basra would be heightened fighting between rival Shia militias.
Mustafa Alani, a defence analyst with the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said the UK would be leaving behind a mini civil war.
"Actually the British forces' area of control was under the domination and control of the militia from day one," he said.
Brown also made a "policy U-turn" Monday on granting asylum to the Iraqi interpreters and other workers employed by the British in Iraq, promising that many would be allowed to settle in Britain, reports The Times (London).
In a statement to Parliament, he said that the Iraqis worked in "extremely difficult circumstances" and promised that anyone employed for more than a year by the Armed Forces would automatically be entitled to financial aid for resettlement....
The Home Office had previously given warning that it would be potentially disastrous to rewrite asylum laws for one small group of people, while ignoring thousands of asylum-seekers with equally strong claims.
A report in June from the Oxford Research Group, a nonprofit group on global security, had called for a gradual pullout of British forces from Iraq, along with assistance to Iraqi military, support for rebuilding the country, and an apology from the prime minister. The group pointed out that 17 countries "which had troops or supported operations in Iraq at some point" have pulled out. "Poland, Denmark, and possibly Lithuania are expected to also withdraw later this year."