LONDON AND BOSTON - British prime minister Tony Blair announced Wednesday the beginning of the end of British military involvement in Iraq, starting with a 25 percent drawdown before summer.
Denmark also said it would pull all of its 460 ground troops from Iraq by August.
Blair said Wednesday that 1,600 of the 7,100-strong force will leave in the coming months, with hundreds more to pull out throughout the summer. In all, 3,000 could be gone by year's end, by which time all four southern provinces that were under the British should have been handed over to Iraqi control. The remaining troops will shift roles, taking a more discreet, remote approach inside their base at Basra airport, as the Iraqi security forces take on day-to-day security matters.
So by the end of the year Shia militias and factions in the national and local governments will be free to battle for control of the oil revenue. The Brits will stay in a base and offer training classes.
The crucial British difference? Parliamentary democracy. Bush can't get unseated by a no-confidence vote in Congress. Tony Blair is on the way out. The public expects his heir apparent Gordon Brown to get them out of Iraq.
Answering unspoken accusations that this signaled a rift with Washington, Blair averred that these moves would be in tune with the new-minted policy of the Bush Administration and were "informed by Baker-Hamilton." The situation in southern Iraq "has never presented anything like the challenge of Baghdad" and had now reached a point in Basra — however battered the city and its economy, however uncertain its security — where the British-led coalition forces there could contemplate handing over control to the Iraqi army. "What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be but that the next chapter of its history will be written by Iraqis," said Blair.
The next chapter for Iraq features war between rival sects, tribes, and criminal gangs.
The task is made harder in Basra by the fact that the two main militias, the Badr organisation and the Mahdi army, are linked to different Islamist political parties that are vying for supremacy. The governor of Basra and the chairman of the provincial council have ties to one side, and the police chief to the other, while the police force beneath him is packed with men from both. They are engaged in a kind of civic civil war, a local struggle over who controls revenues, both legal and illegal - the most lucrative of which is the siphoning-off of Basra's oil.
None of this lethal crew likes the British, so it is no surprise that British casualties over the past four months have tripled as troops go valiantly about Operation Sinbad, an effort largely aimed at "cleaning up" some of the city's police stations. The Ministry of Defence keeps no monthly count of attacks on British troops, but the figures for the wounded who are taken to field hospitals have gone up from a rate of five a month between February and October 2006 to 17 a month since then. On the plus side, the MoD claims that in terms of reduced corruption 55% of police stations are now considered "acceptable", compared with only 20% when Sinbad began.
During the invasion British troops peaked at about 45,000. So British troop levels are headed down to a tenth of that peak.
Can the United States help the Shias and Sunnis? Sure. Help them move away from each other. That'll reduce the death toll from sectarian violence. Once they are well separated we can leave. Or we can leave now and the civil war will progress more rapidly and end sooner.
|Share |||By Randall Parker at 2007 February 21 10:32 PM Mideast Iraq Exit Debate|