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Britain picks its battles carefully

The military can't fight in Iraq and Afghanistan without approaching `operational failure.' Something had to give.

February 22, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Britain's decision to pull 1,600 troops out of Iraq by spring, touted by U.S. and British leaders as a turning point in Iraqi sovereignty, was widely seen Wednesday as a telling admission that the British military could no longer sustain simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The British military is approaching "operational failure," former defense staff chief Charles Guthrie warned this week.

"Because the British army is in essence fighting a far more intensive counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, there's been a realization that there has to be some sort of transfer of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan," said Clive Jones, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Leeds, who has closely followed Britain's Iraq deployment.

"It's either that, or you risk in some ways losing both," he said. "It's the classic case of 'Let's declare victory and get out.' "

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has been pressed to add 800 troops to Afghanistan to halt a resurgent Taliban and a worrying escalation of drug trafficking, at the same time that it is beset by criticism for joining the United States in an unpopular invasion and prolonged war in Iraq. The 132nd British soldier to die in Iraq, Pvt. Luke Daniel Simpson, was buried Wednesday. He was killed Feb. 9.

The decision to draw down forces by more than 20% in the southern city of Basra means that Britain will significantly shrink its military footprint at a time when the Pentagon is increasing U.S. troop levels to battle militants to the north, in Baghdad and Al Anbar province.

The Bush administration hastened to present the British decision as an indication that the U.S.-led military operation was succeeding. Vice President Dick Cheney called the reduction "an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said the U.S.-led coalition "remains intact" even though the roster of nations contributing troops, excluding the U.S., has fallen to 25 from 35.

But the Pentagon, in its most recent quarterly report to Congress, listed Basra as one of five cities outside Baghdad where violence remained "significant," and said the region was one of only two "not ready for transition" to Iraqi authorities.

Once a promising beacon, Basra suffers from sectarian violence as well as Shiite militia clashes over oil smuggling. Ferocious street battles have broken out between rival Shiite Muslim groups in provincial capitals such as Samawah, Kut and Diwaniya in the last year.

Congressional critics

Democratic leaders in Congress denounced the Bush administration assessment as misleading.

"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," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "This should be a wake-up call to the administration. Prime Minister Blair's announced redeployment of British troops is a stunning rejection of President Bush's high-risk Iraq policy."

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the British decision "confirms the doubts in the minds of the American people" about the decision to boost the U.S. force.

"The president's escalation plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq is out of step with the American people and our allies," Pelosi said in a statement. "Why are thousands of additional American troops being sent to Iraq at the same time that British troops are planning to leave?"

In Britain, Blair's opponents quickly painted the withdrawal as an admission of failure.

"The unpalatable truth is that we will leave behind a country on the brink of civil war, in which reconstruction has stalled and corruption is endemic, and a region that is a lot less stable than it was in 2003," Liberal Democratic Party leader Menzies Campbell said in Wednesday's Parliament debate on the troop drawdown.

"That is a long way short of the beacon of democracy in the Middle East that was promised some four years ago," he said.

For Blair, the decision to begin reducing Britain's 7,100 troops in the south to 5,500, with possible further withdrawals later in the year, was almost a political necessity. His Labor Party is trailing in the polls ahead of crucial regional elections in the spring. And Blair is preparing to hand over the reins of government this year, most likely to his treasury minister, fellow Labor leader Gordon Brown, who favors phasing out Britain's deployment in Iraq.

In announcing the troop reductions, Blair said they coincided with the increasing assumption of security responsibilities by Iraqi military and police forces. He said British troops would continue to patrol the Iranian border and remain at their main base in Basra through at least 2008, to assist Iraqi forces if needed.

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