Tony Blair Removing British Troops from Iraq

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to announce today the withdrawal of nearly half the British troops currently deployed in Iraq by the end of the year.

There are currently 7,100 British troops in southern Iraq, mostly in Basra, the country’s second largest city. More than 130 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Mr Blair is expected to confirm in the House of Commons that 1,500 British troops whose tours of duty end in April will not be returning to Iraq and will not be replaced. A further 1,500 troops will return to the UK in December. In anticipation of this major reduction in ground forces, British military officials have relinquished command of the Iraqi army in Basra, who are now taking orders from their Iraqi general in Baghdad.

“The transfer is a significant step toward Iraqi forces taking responsibility for security in the city,” said the British military in a statement.   Political analysts have said that the announcement signals a shift in the relationship between Prime Minister Blair and President George W Bush. The British public have turned with a vengeance on their Prime Minister for backing the US-led invasion – which has blighted Mr Blair’s administration, inflicted severe national and local electoral losses on his Labor Party, and forced his decision to leave office later this year.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told SBS World News, “The coalition has been withering for a long time and I think this gives lie to the fact that this really has become an American war. It’s an American presence, in fact, in an Iraqi civil war, and that’s one of the reasons why the British are desperate to get out … There’s a way in which Tony Blair risked his career for his friendship with George Bush and then he lost it.” During a videoconference on Tuesday morning, Mr Blair discussed his plans with President Bush, who has been quick to hail the development as a “sign of success”. According to The Independent, President Bush said that he was “grateful for the support of the British forces in the past and into the future”. He added, “We want to bring our troops home as well. It’s the model we want to emulate, to turn over more responsibility to Iraqis and bring our troops home.”

Despite the positive spin, there is little doubt that Mr Blair’s announcement comes at an awkward time for the White House, just as a surge of 21,500 additional US troops make their way to Iraq. There has also been a significant additional build-up of US military force in the Persian Gulf, which has raised speculation that the US is planning military strikes on Iran. Since the 2003 US-led invasion, the British have been the staunchest allies of the US in Iraq. There were 46,000 British soldiers in force for the invasion, a number scaled back following the military victory, as the occupation got underway. The British took charge of four mainly Shiite provinces in southern Iraq, including Basra. They began handing security responsibilities over to the Iraqis last year, when two provinces were placed under Iraqi control. The British have since abandoned their base in a third province.  The final contingent at Basra will now retreat from the city to their barracks at a nearby air base, where they will continue to provide support and training for the Iraqi forces which have now assumed control, until they are recalled to Britain.British military commanders have long supported the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and have repeatedly warned that the British military has been failing to cope with more pressing commitments around the globe.


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