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Britain picks its battles carefully

Times Staff Writer

Britain’s decision to pull 1,600 troops out of Iraq by spring, touted by U.S. and British leaders as a turning point in Iraqi sovereignty, was widely seen Wednesday as a telling admission that the British military could no longer sustain simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The British military is approaching “operational failure,” former defense staff chief Charles Guthrie warned this week.

“Because the British army is in essence fighting a far more intensive counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, there’s been a realization that there has to be some sort of transfer of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan,” said Clive Jones, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Leeds, who has closely followed Britain’s Iraq deployment.

“It’s either that, or you risk in some ways losing both,” he said. “It’s the classic case of ‘Let’s declare victory and get out.’ ”

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Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has been pressed to add 800 troops to Afghanistan to halt a resurgent Taliban and a worrying escalation of drug trafficking, at the same time that it is beset by criticism for joining the United States in an unpopular invasion and prolonged war in Iraq. The 132nd British soldier to die in Iraq, Pvt. Luke Daniel Simpson, was buried Wednesday. He was killed Feb. 9.

The decision to draw down forces by more than 20% in the southern city of Basra means that Britain will significantly shrink its military footprint at a time when the Pentagon is increasing U.S. troop levels to battle militants to the north, in Baghdad and Al Anbar province.

The Bush administration hastened to present the British decision as an indication that the U.S.-led military operation was succeeding. Vice President Dick Cheney called the reduction “an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well,” and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said the U.S.-led coalition “remains intact” even though the roster of nations contributing troops, excluding the U.S., has fallen to 25 from 35.

But the Pentagon, in its most recent quarterly report to Congress, listed Basra as one of five cities outside Baghdad where violence remained “significant,” and said the region was one of only two “not ready for transition” to Iraqi authorities.

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Once a promising beacon, Basra suffers from sectarian violence as well as Shiite militia clashes over oil smuggling. Ferocious street battles have broken out between rival Shiite Muslim groups in provincial capitals such as Samawah, Kut and Diwaniya in the last year.

Congressional critics

Democratic leaders in Congress denounced the Bush administration assessment as misleading.

“No matter how the White House tries to spin it, the British government has decided to split with President Bush and begin to move their troops out of Iraq,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). “This should be a wake-up call to the administration. Prime Minister Blair’s announced redeployment of British troops is a stunning rejection of President Bush’s high-risk Iraq policy.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the British decision “confirms the doubts in the minds of the American people” about the decision to boost the U.S. force.

“The president’s escalation plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq is out of step with the American people and our allies,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Why are thousands of additional American troops being sent to Iraq at the same time that British troops are planning to leave?”

In Britain, Blair’s opponents quickly painted the withdrawal as an admission of failure.

“The unpalatable truth is that we will leave behind a country on the brink of civil war, in which reconstruction has stalled and corruption is endemic, and a region that is a lot less stable than it was in 2003,” Liberal Democratic Party leader Menzies Campbell said in Wednesday’s Parliament debate on the troop drawdown.

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“That is a long way short of the beacon of democracy in the Middle East that was promised some four years ago,” he said.

For Blair, the decision to begin reducing Britain’s 7,100 troops in the south to 5,500, with possible further withdrawals later in the year, was almost a political necessity. His Labor Party is trailing in the polls ahead of crucial regional elections in the spring. And Blair is preparing to hand over the reins of government this year, most likely to his treasury minister, fellow Labor leader Gordon Brown, who favors phasing out Britain’s deployment in Iraq.

In announcing the troop reductions, Blair said they coincided with the increasing assumption of security responsibilities by Iraqi military and police forces. He said British troops would continue to patrol the Iranian border and remain at their main base in Basra through at least 2008, to assist Iraqi forces if needed.

“It is important to show the Iraqi people that we do not desire our forces to remain any longer than they are needed, but whilst they are needed, we will be at their side,” Blair told Parliament.

“The situation in Basra is very different from Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency. There is no Al Qaeda base. There is little Shia-on-Sunni violence,” despite “often intense fire” from Shiite militias targeting British troops, he said.

“What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by Iraqis,” Blair said.

Most analysts say the prime minister’s assertion that significant progress had been made in securing southern Iraq stretched the facts. Though the south is not nearly as violent and chaotic as the capital and the Sunni heartland to the west, it remains jittery, unstable and frequently bloody. Shiite militias and armed gangs lord over such cities as Basra and Amarah, as well as the long, desolate stretches of roadway through the marshlands and deserts of the south.

British bases in Basra regularly come under mortar fire. British troops engage in almost daily gunfights with militiamen. In recent months, the British all but evacuated their downtown base and moved to a more secure site on the grounds of the city’s airport.

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Bastion for Islamists

A study on the south issued this week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that has been sympathetic to the Bush administration’s foreign policy goals, describes southern Iraq in dire terms. It notes that Basra, once one of Iraq’s more liberal and cosmopolitan cities, has become a bastion for Islamists who use the south’s vast oil wealth to “fill their war chests.”

“The province has suffered one of the worst reversals of fortune of any area in Iraq since the fall of Saddam [Hussein]'s regime,” the report says.

Military and political analysts said a British drawdown in the region could leave a vacuum that could provide shelter to militiamen displaced during stepped-up U.S.-Iraqi operations in Baghdad, in a location where Iranian influence is great.

Equally serious, they said, is the fact that Basra and its environs are a crucial supply link to U.S. forces in Baghdad.

“The fear is essentially that when the U.K. pulls out, the militias will come to control the situation, rather than the Iraqi army,” said Michael J. Williams, head of the transatlantic program at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

Although U.S. and British leaders have taken pains to deny any split in policy over Iraq, “if the security situation in Basra was perfect, should the Brits be withdrawing troops, or reallocating them someplace else where they’re needed, which is Baghdad?” Williams said.

“The fact is that the troops that work best alongside the Americans are leaving the country,” he said.

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad and James Gerstenzang, Paul Richter and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.

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Begin text of infobox

Coalition troops

British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to withdraw about 1,600 troops from Iraq in coming months. Here’s a look at some of the nations contributing military personnel in Iraq and how their troop levels have changed since the war began in March 2003:

*--* X Oct. 2003 Dec. 2005 Current United States 130,000 160,000 132,000 Britain 7,400 8,000 7,100 South Korea 675 3,200 2,300

*--*

South Korea: Approved a one-third reduction of its forces last year.

*--* Australia 0 900 1,450 Romania 800 863 1,000 Poland 2,400 1,400 900

*--*

Poland: Last fall authorized the extension of its troops and will pull them out by mid-2007.

*--* Georgia 70 900 850 Denmark 400 530 300

*--*

Denmark: Announced Wednesday that it would withdraw its ground troops from southern Iraq by August and replace them with 55 soldiers in a helicopter unit.

*--* El Salvador 360 380 380 Bulgaria 485 380 153 Czech Republic 300 102 96 Italy 3,000 2,800 0

*--*

Italy: Pulled its last troops out in September.

*--* Netherlands 1,100 19 0 Spain 1,300 0 0

*--*

Spain: Ordered its troops out soon after the 2004 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people.

*--* Ukraine 1,650 876 0 Japan 0 600 0

*--*

Japan: Last year, ended its controversial deployment, its first significant military involvement since World War II.

*--* Honduras 360 0 0 Thailand 400 0 0

*--*

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Numbers are based on best estimates from sources listed

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Sources: Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, GlobalSecurity.org, Times reports and wire services. Graphics reporting by Scott Wilson, Mike Young


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