Iraq: Little Brother Poses a Problem

LONDON (IPS) – The signs have been emerging thicker and faster of late that the British want to pull out of Iraq altogether, but on Friday a British general set a timeline, and Prime Minister Tony Blair as good as agreed.

General Sir Richard Dannatt said in an interview published Friday in the Daily Mail that Britain needs to withdraw from Iraq "sometime soon." The general later said that by "sometime soon" he meant when the job is done. Blair said later in the day he agreed with "every word" the new head of the British Army had said on the Iraq war.

The general did not at first give a time indication of what he meant by "sometime soon." But he clarified later that British presence could not continue two years or more.

Two years from now is when Britain goes to the polls, and when Britain’s Labor Party will face hostile questions in the face of an increasing realization that the Iraq intervention was among the bigger blunders of recent British history.

Blair is expected to quit as prime minister within a year or so. The circumstances of the two Friday announcements suggest that Blair will want to leave with an undoing of the Iraq disaster.

Few believe that the military commander spoke on his own, without private agreement with Blair and government leaders. The two comments added up to the first public declaration of a troops pullout from Iraq. The agreement appeared orchestrated.

In fact, a British military withdrawal from Iraq has been ongoing for some time.

British control in Iraq has been reduced progressively, Denselow said. "Control of two provinces has been handed over, and one more province will be handed over soon," he said. That would leave the British in significant charge only of the southern city Basra.

"Britain has only 7,000 soldiers left in Iraq, compared to more than 140,000 U.S. troops," James Denselow from the Royal Institute of International Affairs (known popularly as Chatham House) told IPS. Chatham House is among the most influential think tanks on foreign policy in Britain.

"The British have been reducing forces significantly since the invasion," Denselow said. One reason, he said, was that Britain had also taken significant commitments in Afghanistan, and British military sources are "more finite" than those of the United States.

But Britain has been seen as the big US ally in Iraq all along, and a British withdrawal is certain to be damaging to US legitimacy in Iraq. The United States will be unhappy to see a senior player like Britain now retreat from Iraq, Denselow said.

General George Casey, who is the commander of the coalition forces in Iraq "is a bull player who has not drifted from his policy," Denselow said. Casey has said the present high level of violence will continue about two months, and that there has been progress in the meanwhile towards a peaceful and governable Iraq.

The United States is expected to continue to take a military-led decision to stay on in Iraq, while the British are now taking an apparently military-led decision to pull out.

The British general has said that occupation forces are making things worse in Iraq. British troops, he said should get out "sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems." Gen. Dannatt took over as head of the British army in August of this year.

The general also said that after the initial success of the invasion military plans in Iraq were "poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."

Tony Blair said the general was "absolutely right" about the troops’ presence exacerbating problems in Iraq, and that is why the British had pulled troops out of two provinces.

What the British are now saying makes sense for themselves, but not for the US forces, battling increased insurgency particularly in the al-Anbar province west of Baghdad.

IPS correspondents in Iraq have reported that US troops have pulled out of some towns and areas – because it is too dangerous for them to go in there. For the United States, there can be no early exit. And staying on will be a lot harder when their British cousins down south depart.