Blair Plans To Withdraw 1,600 Troops From Iraq

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By Mary Jordan and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 22, 2007

LONDON, Feb. 21 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Wednesday that 1,600 British troops would return home from Iraq in the coming months and that a further 500 soldiers may be withdrawn by the end of summer.

Even though Britain has only 7,100 troops in Iraq, compared with the 135,000-strong U.S. contingent, they carry symbolic importance as the largest allied presence. British forces make up half of the roughly 14,000 non-U.S. troops in the coalition in Iraq.

Vice President Cheney, in an interview with ABC News during a visit to Tokyo, called the planned withdrawal "an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well." Democratic leaders noted, however, that the British are withdrawing as President Bush is sending an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq.

Iraqi leaders generally welcomed the withdrawal plan, although Sunni officials said they feared the departure of British troops from Shiite-dominated southern Iraq would lead to increased sectarian violence that Iraqi security forces would be unable to stop.

Blair's plans allow him in the final months of his administration to show a measure of independence from Washington on Iraq policy. Battered in public opinion polls because of his support of the war, Blair has said he will step down by September.

At the same time Blair was speaking in London, the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, announced in Denmark that its 460 troops under British command in Iraq will return home by August. In Lithuania, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said the country is "seriously considering" withdrawing its 53 troops from Iraq in August.

Blair said the British reduction in troops was possible because security conditions were better in southern Iraq, where British troops patrol, than in Baghdad, where many U.S. troops are located. He said that "80 to 90 percent of the violence" is in Baghdad, which is enduring an "orgy of terrorism."

British troops just completed an operation to turn over control of security to Iraqi forces in the southern city of Basra, Blair said. "What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by Iraqis," he said.

But military and political analysts disputed Blair's upbeat description of the situation in the Basra area. They also said they believed the timing of the British drawdown may have more to do with plunging polls for Blair's Labor Party, pressure from British military officials and Blair's desire to begin an endgame for Iraq before he leaves office.

A poll this week showed that only 29 percent of respondents would vote for Labor, while 42 percent favored the opposition Conservative Party, the worst showing by Labor since 1992.

British military leaders are increasingly complaining of overstretched forces and low morale, and there has been growing military pressure on Blair to reduce the presence, said Michael Williams, head of the transatlantic program at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.

"While the British zone is much quieter," he said, the Basra area "still has a number of security issues" and it "is foolhardy" to believe that Iraqi forces are ready to assume total control of the area. He also noted that if Blair had the political will, he could deploy some troops to help out the Americans in Baghdad instead of sending them home.


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