UK Might Withdraw Iraq Troops

UK newspapers are reporting that British military commanders have drawn up plans to withdraw the vast majority of British troops from Iraq within 12 months to concentrate on the war in Afghanistan, in a case they will present to incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown when he takes over from Tony Blair on June 27.

The Daily Mail reported that the timetable, which includes handing over the last two British bases at Basra Palace and Basra Airport to local officials before Christmas, has already been outlined in an official letter to the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

The commanders are concerned that the British military is being stretched to breaking point by fighting simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They believe British troops are achieving little in southern Iraq and that their presence is escalating the violence there.

According to the Independent, British chief of defense General Sir Richard Dannatt said in October that troops should be pulled out “sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems”.

Troop numbers have already been reduced from 7,000 to 5,500 in recent weeks.

Under the proposed plan, a small British presence would still be maintained at Basra Airport to oversee essential air traffic control systems, but troops would no longer guard checkpoints or the airport’s perimeter. A small number of teams would also remain to advise local security forces.

The prospect of such a substantial British withdrawal will clearly not be welcomed by US President George Bush, who has recently mobilized an additional 21,500 US troops to fight the insurgency and al Qaeda in Iraq. Since the US-led invasion in 2003, the US has counted on British troops as allies in the controversial war.

Like President Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair has consistently maintained that there should be no timetable for a withdrawal of troops in Iraq.

Yet the Daily Times reports that a senior military official has said, “Britain is not physically capable of fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time. There is an agreed timetable, a glide path, which will see a complete unilateral withdrawal in 12 months. At the most senior level in the Ministry of Defence, the decision has been taken that Britain should be investing in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, and that is the advice that will be given to Gordon Brown.”

Another senior British Army official told the Daily Mail: “What Dannatt said last year was right then, and it’s still right now. It’s a question of when we leave, not if, so why hang on? From what I can see, much of the discussion is about how to present this as some kind of success.”

Meanwhile, the Times Online reports that Major General Jonathan Shaw, the British commander in southern Iraq, also supports major troop withdrawals over the next 12 months.

The UK’s Ministry of Defense has played down talk of the timetable and has insisted that all contingency plans will be considered. “Our policy on withdrawal from Iraq has not changed,” a spokesman told the Daily Mail. “Military planners routinely look at a range of options, and as we have always said, any withdrawal requires the conditions on the ground to be right.”

Nevertheless, the British public’s backlash against the unpopular war in Iraq dealt the political death blow to outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair, and this is likely to be a major consideration for Mr Brown when he takes office in June.

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