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Blair plots Britain's Iraq withdrawal

Tom Hundley and Liz Sly
Chicago Tribune

LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement Wednesday that Britain would begin bringing its troops home from Iraq is less a reflection of progress there than part of Blair's choreographed departure from Downing Street, according to politicians and analysts.

"I always assumed he would want to be able to announce some limited withdrawal before he left No. 10," said former Labor Minister Tony Benn, a longtime critic of the war. "It is nothing to do with the real question. It doesn't represent any change of policy whatsoever, in my opinion, but tactically it looks good."

Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats and another critic of the war, said Blair "leaves behind a country on the brink of civil war, reconstruction stalled, corruption endemic and the region as a whole a lot less stable than it was in 2003."

Blair has said he will step down sometime this summer, but many political analysts speculate that his departure may come as early as May. His approval ratings and his authority have been weakened by deep opposition to the war in Britain, and by what many Britons see as his subservience to President Bush.

In a speech to Parliament on Wednesday, Blair confirmed that 1,600 of Britain's 7,100 soldiers would be brought home over the next few months. The remainder are expected to be withdrawn by the end of 2008. Britain has lost 132 service members in the conflict, and has been the United States' leading partner, committing some 40,000 troops to the 2003 invasion.

Denmark, which has 460 troops in Iraq, also announced Wednesday that its forces would be withdrawn this summer. Both the British and Danish troops are concentrated in southern Iraq in and around the city of Basra.

Though the security situation in Basra is far better than in Baghdad, it could hardly be described as satisfactory.

The initial welcome afforded British troops by the local Shiite majority wore out long ago. British troops stopped patrolling the streets more than a year ago and are mostly confined to their compounds at Basra airport and at the Shatt al-Arab hotel in town. The hotel comes under almost daily mortar bombardment.

"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 told Parliament.

Blair said the British troops would hand over their bases to local authorities and withdraw to the airport base and Basra Palace. Troops remaining in Iraq would be used to train local security forces, secure the Iraq-Iran border and secure supply routes, he said.

"The situation in Basra is very different from Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency. There is no al-Qaida base. There is little Shia on Sunni violence. The bulk of the attacks are on the (Multi-National Force). It has never presented anything like the challenge of Baghdad," Blair said.

Conservative leader David Cameron told Parliament that the announcement of the troop drawdown was "welcome in this House, in the country and especially to the families of those serving in Iraq over the coming months," but he urged Blair to open a public inquiry into the "many bad mistakes" made in Iraq.

Blair refused, saying the time for such an inquiry was when the mission in Iraq was complete.

Britain's military presence will start to shrink just as U.S. troop levels in Iraq begin their expected surge. In Washington, Bush called this a "sign of success" - proof that the situation in Iraq was improving, according to Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Bush and Blair discussed the situation during a videoconference Tuesday.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who was traveling in Japan, was asked by ABC News how it would look to Americans to see British troops pulling out while the U.S. was increasing troop levels.

"I look at it and what I see is an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," Cheney said. "The focus that we've had, obviously, is Baghdad and the decision the president made to surge troops into Baghdad. The Baghdad Security Plan is based on conditions in Baghdad."

In Basra, the local government is controlled by a coalition of fundamentalist parties who have enforced a form of Islamic law, outlawing alcohol, music and theater. Few women dare go out without a headscarf. Secularists say they don't feel safe from the periodic assassinations of those who challenge the official line. The threat of kidnapping has put Basra off limits to Westerners unless they stay within the heavily fortified British compounds.

"Those who have their own opinions, and those who don't have an Islamic attitude, they are in danger," said Adel al-Thamery, who runs a journalism training program in Basra. "And Basra is not a safe place for foreigners at all. There are gangs on the roads, and there are political factions who use violence to achieve their goals, and then of course there are our neighbors, the Iranians."

Iran's influence is heavily felt in Iraq's second-largest city, just a few miles from the Iranian border, and even with the British presence, Iran is considered the dominant power in the city, he said. "The British have never controlled Basra," he said.

Compared to Baghdad, however, a form of relative stability prevails. The Iraqi security forces, though believed to be heavily infiltrated by local militias, control the streets, and there is no visible militia presence.

Because it is far from the Sunni heartland, Basra has been spared the relentless attacks of the Sunni-led insurgency and the sectarian warfare that have entangled U.S. forces in a deepening involvement in Baghdad. Most members of Basra's almost powerless Sunni minority were ejected a year ago, but they have since been allowed to return.

At the time of the U.S.-led invasion nearly four years ago, Britain contributed as many as 40,000 troops to the effort in Iraq. But that number was soon scaled back, dropping to 9,000 about two years ago, a figure that has since been reduced to the current 7,100.

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(Hundley reported from London, Sly from Baghdad.)

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