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Ally's Timing Is Awkward for Bush

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said the move will undercut Republicans in Congress trying to stave off attempts to limit what Bush can do in Iraq.

"It's probably not going to bode well for those of us who want to make a case against what Murtha and Pelosi plan for the supplemental," LaHood said. "It does not help."

Blair's announcement could also boost calls by Democrats and some Republicans for a serious change in Iraq policy -- not just in the number of troops fighting but also in what those troops should do. The British plan to withdraw 2,100 of 7,100 troops by summer's end and to redeploy the remainder away from combat toward more training of Iraqi troops and patrolling the Iranian border. That mirrors bipartisan Senate proposals for U.S. forces that are spelled out in two stalled nonbinding resolutions, including one co-sponsored by Warner.

"What the British are doing, and what we really need to do, is to tease out the cultural complexities of this thing," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.). "On the one hand, they are signaling to all the Iraqi people, whatever sect they are -- Sunnis, Shias, Kurds -- they are not going to be an occupying force. That's a powerful signal to send. And the other signal is that they are passing the torch to the Iraqis, who are the only ones who can handle this ancient -- I'd say primitive -- sectarian dispute."

The White House argued that comparing the British situation in Basra and the U.S. position in Baghdad fundamentally distorts reality. The south, where the British have been in charge, has no Sunni insurgency and far less violence than Baghdad or Anbar. The coalition plan all along has been to pull out foreign troops when an area is ready for Iraqi control, the White House said.

"The fact that they have made some progress on the ground is going to enable them to move some of the forces out, and that's ultimately the kind of thing that we want to be able to see throughout Iraq," said White House press secretary Tony Snow. He said no consideration was given to asking the British to instead redeploy those departing troops to help their U.S. counterparts in Baghdad or Anbar.

Hadley, speaking to reporters in Brussels, where he was traveling, said he did not mean to suggest the British departure signals "an unalloyed picture of progress," but he rejected a more negative interpretation. "I didn't want people to think it reflected a lack of confidence by the British in the mission or a turning away from the mission," he said. "It is not."

Still, other administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity so they could talk candidly about political strategy, expressed frustration that the British decision will look bad to everyday Americans, and acknowledged that it will provide ammunition to domestic opponents.

"It's a brick in the hands of folks who want to take cheap shots," one official said. "But I think it's unfair."

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