Democrats seize on UK troop cuts
By James Blitz in London, Daniel Dombey in Brussels and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: February 21 2007 19:54 | Last updated: February 21 2007 21:31
The Bush administration on Wednesday welcomed Tony Blair’s decision to withdraw nearly a quarter of the British troops in Iraq over the next few months, saying the move showed that in parts of the country “things are going pretty well”.
But although the British prime minister told parliament that the withdrawal of 1,600 troops would allow Iraqis to “write the next chapter in their history”, prominent Democrats in Congress said the move was a sign that Britain was now giving up on the US in Iraq and contrasted it with the surge in US troop numbers deployed to contain the violence in Baghdad.
Mr Blair announced to parliament that the 7,100 troops serving in Basra would be cut to 5,500 “over the coming months”, with hopes that 500 more would leave as early as late summer.
Mr Blair said that some soldiers stationed at Basra air base would remain into 2008 to help secure supply routes, the Iran border and to support Iraqi forces.
Downing Street officials said the decision to cut troop numbers to 5,500 was broadly in line with plans drawn up by the Ministry of Defence at the end of last year.
However, there were strong indications earlier this year that the British had initially been looking to announce a deeper cut at this stage – to about 4,500 troops. Some British officials concede that these plans have been disrupted by the continuing violence in Basra.
Mr Blair on Wednesday admitted that “the problems remain formidable” in the south of Iraq.
“What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be but the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by the Iraqis,” he said.
In Washington, meanwhile, the White House and leading Democrats differed fiercely over the implications of the UK move.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said the British “have done what is really the plan for the country as a whole which is to be able to transfer security responsibilities to the Iraqis as conditions permit”. But Edward Kennedy, a senior Democratic senator, said the British redeployment was a “stunning rejection” of the president’s decision to increase US troop numbers around Baghdad by 21,500.
“No matter how the White House tries to spin it, the British government has decided to split with President Bush and begin to move their troops out of Iraq,” Mr Kennedy said.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the UK move “weakens the image of the coalition and further isolates the US”.
“This is a war of perceptions, as well as military power, and the influence of British cuts will be negative,” said Mr Cordesman. “The British cuts will in many ways simply reflect the political reality that the British ‘lost’ the south more than a year ago. The Shia will take over, Iranian influence will probably expand, and more Sunni, Christians, and other minorities will leave.”