Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce Wednesday a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, with 1,500 to return home in several weeks, British media reported.
Blair will also tell the House of Commons during his regular weekly appearance before it that a total of about 3,000 British soldiers will have left southern Iraq by the end of 2007, if the security there is sufficient, the British Broadcasting Corp. and The Sun newspaper said, quoting government officials who werenâ€™t further identified.
The BBC said Blair was not expected to say when the rest of Britainâ€™s forces would leave Iraq. Currently, Britain has about 7,100 soldiers there.
What does it mean? The analyses are coming in fast and quick.
That rather striking reversal does not appear to reflect much confidence in the prospects of success for the President’s Glorious AEI Surge currently underway. Moreover, given that British troops are deployed primarily in Southern Iraq, their withdrawal will either require a deployment of replacement American forces (thereby diluting the “surge”), or create a vacuum where Iran can exert still greater influence and/or provide a safe haven for Shiite militias to wait out the “surge” in safety (while American forces do their dirty work in battling the Sunnis).
Blair’s reversal was likely motivated in large part by various domestic political pressures. Still, the fact that President Bush’s most steadfast ally has reversed himself in such a public and humiliating way, and announced a clear-cut withdrawal from Iraq on a set timetable, should embolden frightened American Congressional war opponents to move beyond inconsequential and limited non-binding resolutions and begin thinking seriously about how to compel an end to this endlessly destructive occupation.
Brits are halving their force in Iraq. Tony Blair, who long fought within his own party to do the right thing in Iraq, is giving in to political forces he is no longer willing to fight. Heâ€™s leaving himself soon enough, so he might as well set the terms for the British draw down, to leave a reaction force in Basra, rather than allow someone else to precipitate a total withdrawal.
A top Australia official said this was a sign of progress:
Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson today played down the significance of the expected announcement and said it was a sign of progress in southern Iraq, where most British troops are based.
“Under no circumstances should anybody interpret the British having 5,000 troops in Basra, 10 times the Australian number, looking after the same number of provinces, as any kind of cut and run,” he told reporters in Perth.
“In fact, what this is evidence of is the fact that in the south of Iraq we are making progress and the British are confident enough to reduce their troop numbers to around 5,000.”
The Howard government has refused to set a deadline for the withdrawal of Australia’s 1,400 troops in Iraq, many of them also based in southern Iraq.
Time’s Joe Klein, writing on his magazines ever-lively Swampland blog, says this is not a baby step…but that Great Britain is getting outtathere:
They say 3000 by the end of the year, but here’s a prediction: All 7500 by the end of the year. The reason is Gordon Brown, who’ll replace Tony Blair as PM in the next few months. Brown will want to build a head of steam for his agenda–and to keep the Tories away from Downing Street–and the best, fastest way to do that is to announce a total withdrawal from Iraq. In fact, one of my intel sources says it’s a done deal, “They’re leaving.” So how much longer can President Bush talk about “coalition forces” doing this or that?
However, there is no doubt that the transition comes at a difficult time for George Bush and the US. While Blair will allow the British forces to reduce through the end of fresh rotations into Basra, the US has started to send three times as many troops into Baghdad than what the Brits have in the entire country now. The progress in Basra will get overshadowed by the surge and the battle where the sectarian insurgencies meet in the Iraqi capital.
This is the natural denouement of the Iraqi campaign, however. As the Iraqis can take over security responsibilities for their provinces, the Western powers will pull back and pull out, although the British forces will remain in smaller numbers to provide assistance to the Iraqis. The US will do the same when Baghdad and Anbar come under better control. The Brits have succeed in their mission, and they now can shift their forces accordingly.
UPDATE: Vice President Dick Cheney tells ABC News that this is a positive sign:
British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s announcement that British troops will begin withdrawing from Iraq would appear to be bad news for the Bush administration.
But in an exclusive interview with ABC News, Vice President Dick Cheney said the move was actually good news and a sign of progress in Iraq.
“Well, I look at it and see it is actually an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well,” Cheney told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl.
“In fact, I talked to a friend just the other day who had driven to Baghdad down to Basra, seven hours, found the situation dramatically improved from a year or so ago, sort of validated the British view they had made progress in southern Iraq and that they can therefore reduce their force levels,” Cheney said.
UPDATE II: Now Demark is leaving:
Denmark will withdraw its troops from Iraq by August, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said.
The troops, numbering about 460, will be replaced by a unit of nine soldiers manning four observational helicopters, he said.
It comes as Tony Blair announced a timetable for reducing British troop numbers in Iraq from 7,100 to 5,500.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice says the coalition remains intact.
And Dick Cheney says the U.S. wants to leave Iraq “with honor” and not make terrorists think that the United States is weak.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.