BLAIR ANNOUNCES IRAQ TROOPS CUT
February 21, 2007
[INSET: U.K. TROOPS IN IRAQ: March/April 2003: 46,000; May 2003: 19,000; May 2004: 9,000; May 2005: 9,000; May 2006: 8,000; November 2006: 8,000]
Prime Minister Tony Blair has told MPs that 1,600 British troops will return from Iraq within the next few months.
He said the 7,100 serving troops would be cut to 5,500 soon, with hopes that 500 more will leave by late summer.
Remaining troops will stay into 2008, to give back-up if necessary and secure borders, but the Iraqis would "write the next chapter" in Basra's history.
The announcement follows a five-month security operation to quell violence in British-controlled Basra.
Mr. Blair said Operation Sinbad, aimed at allowing Iraqis to take the lead in frontline security in the city, had been successful.
He acknowledged that Basra was still "difficult and sometimes dangerous," but he said levels of murder and kidnappings had dropped and reconstruction was under way.
"The U.K. military presence will continue into 2008, for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do.
"Increasingly our role will support and training, and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly," Mr. Blair 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."
He said that it was important to show the Iraqis that Britain -- and the other multinational force members -- did not intend their forces to stay longer than necessary.
Later Defense Security Des Browne said he expected the government to look again at the numbers of troops being withdrawn at the end of the summer.
"I am absolutely confident that by the end of the year we will be able to reach the prediction I made which was by the end of this year we will have reduced our troop level by thousands," he said.
British forces will hand over all bases to local authorities, except for Basra air base and Basra Palace, and most will withdraw to the air base shortly.
Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh told BBC Radio Five Live: "We need to affirm our gratitude and appreciation for the British contribution to the liberation of Iraq.
"This redeployment of troops comes in the context of transfer of security responsibilities to the Iraqi government.
"When we assumed sovereignty two and a half years ago Iraqi security services were almost non-existent. Today we have tens of thousands of Iraqi police and Iraqi military."
Conservative leader David Cameron told the Commons that the announcement would be "welcomed in this House, in the country and especially to the families of those serving in Iraq over the coming months."
But he said that the security situation in Basra remained "dire" and urged Mr. Blair finally to accept the need for an inquiry into the Iraq war to "learn the lessons" of "many bad mistakes."
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, whose party opposed the war in Iraq, said the target should be the full withdrawal of British troops by the end of October.
He added that the "unpalatable truth" was that Britain was leaving behind a country on the brink on civil war.
"This is a long way short of the beacon of democracy for the Middle East which was promised some four years ago," he said.
The proposed cut in numbers of British troops comes at the same time as 21,500 more U.S. troops are being sent to Iraq.
President Bush's opponents say it shows the British have split with his policy, but US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the coalition "remains intact".
BLAIR ANNOUNCES PLANS FOR TROOP DRAWDOWN IN IRAQ
By Mary Jordan
** Cheney Reaffirms U.S. Commitment to Mission as Danish Troops Plan Pullout **
February 21, 2007
LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Wednesday that 1,600 British troops would return home from Iraq in coming months, but stopped short of announcing any clear exit strategy from the hugely unpopular war. He said a further 500 soldiers may be withdrawn by the end of summer, and that the remaining troops would be involved in supporting and training Iraqi security forces and securing Iraq's border.
Blair's announcement comes as President Bush moves to increase U.S. troop strength with 21,000 more soldiers and as Blair readies to leave office, his legacy tarnished by his support of the war.
Though the British currently have only 7,100 troops in Iraq, compared to the 140,000-strong U.S. contingent, they carry symbolic importance as the largest allied presence.
Even after the planned withdrawals, "the U.K. military presence will continue into 2008 or as long as we are wanted and have a job to do," Blair said in a speech to the House of Commons.
At the same time Blair made his speech, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that Denmark would withdraw all of its 460 troops stationed in Iraq this summer.
"The withdrawal of the Danish battalion will be carried out in August, and it will be replaced by a helicopter unit," Rasmussen told reporters in Copenhagen. The decision was "taken together with our coalition allies, namely Britain."
Both Blair and Bush, who spoke by video link Tuesday, sought to downplay any policy split on Iraq. In his address to the House of Commons, Blair said conditions were vastly different in Basra in southern Iraq, where British troops are located, than in Baghdad where U.S. troops are patrolling.
He said "80 to 90 percent of the violence" was in Baghdad, a city suffering from what he called an "orgy of terrorism."
Blair said the British troops had just completed a months-long operation to turn control of Basra's security over to Iraqi forces.
Basra remained a "dangerous" place, Blair said, but he said that Iraqis would "write the next chapter" in its history.
"We're pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "President Bush sees this as a sign of success and what is possible for us once we help the Iraqis deal with sectarian violence."
The surge in U.S. troops is designed to prepare the way for a similar transition of control to Iraqi forces.
Vice President Cheney, in Japan visiting another close ally, said Wednesday that the United States did not support a "policy of retreat."
Asked about the British withdrawal, Cheney told ABC news from Japan: "What I see is an affirmation of Iraq, where things are going pretty well."
"We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and then we want to come home, with honor," Cheney said in a speech aboard the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier near Tokyo.
In Japan, too, there are signs of diminishing support for the Iraq war.
A survey this week showed most Japanese voters agreed with Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma when he was quoted recently as saying Bush was wrong to start the war.
Cheney thanked Japan for the roughly 550 non-combat troops it sent to southern Iraq in 2004. Japanese forces based in the region continue to help transport supplies for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
In Washington, Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) said the United States should also set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"President Bush should follow Prime Minister Blair's example and start to draw down our troops from Iraq, not send more into the middle of a civil war," said Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Transition of power
BLAIR: 1,600 TROOPS TO LEAVE IRAQ
February 21, 2007
LONDON -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday announced plans for the imminent withdrawal of around 1,600 of his country's troops from Iraq.
In a statement to lawmakers in the House of Commons, Blair said the U.K.'s coalition contingent based in Basra would be reduced in the coming months -- but only if Iraqi security forces could secure the southern part of the country.
"The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100 -- itself down from over 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict -- to roughly 5,500," Blair said.
He said the withdrawal reflected the relative stability in Basra, where the sectarian rifts that have turned Baghdad and northern Iraq into a powderkeg are less of a problem.
"The next chapter in Basra's history will be written by Iraqis," Blair said.
Britain's plans prompted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at a news conference in Berlin with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to reject suggestions the American-led coalition in Iraq was crumbling.
"The British have done what is really the plan for the country as a whole, which is to be able to transfer security responsibilities to the Iraqis as conditions permit," she said.
Rice said that "the coalition remains intact and in fact the British will have thousands of soldiers deployed in Iraq in the south."
Blair said British troops would increasingly play a support and training role with Iraqi forces assuming responsibility for security operations.
On Wednesday the Sun newspaper reported that the first British troops would return home "within weeks" and said that 3,000 will follow by the end of the year.
The Guardian and the Sun reported that all British forces would leave Iraq by the end of 2008.
The Guardian, quoting defense sources, said British troops would continue carrying out long-range patrols in Maysan province along the border with Iran from a single base in Basra.
Defense officials have been encouraged by a campaign to root out criminals and Shia militia supporters from the Basra police force, the paper reported.
CNN's Nic Robertson said British forces had adopted a "softly-softly approach" to policing Basra in comparison with their American allies in Baghdad.
"The assessment has clearly been made for political reasons or because the situation is much better now in Basra that this is a safe operating status that can be put in place there," said Robertson.
"They would go out with berets on their heads instead of helmets, they would patrol the streets more frequently than U.S. troops typically would and try to engage the local population. But in the last year that has not been as successful a tactic as it was in the first year or so."
The British announcement came one day after the Iraqi Army division based in Basra transferred from coalition command to Iraqi command. That Iraqi unit "is now -- for the first time -- taking its orders direct from an Iraqi headquarters in Baghdad," according to a statement on Britain's Ministry of Defense Web site.
In Basra many Iraqis greeted the news with relief, while others voiced fears the British withdrawal was premature amid fears over tensions between Shia parties bubbling beneath the surface.
Salam al-Maliki, a senior official in the bloc loyal to radical young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr which has long opposed a foreign presence in Iraq, said any violence in the city would cease once the foreign troops have left.
"The militias and militant groups in these areas only fired their weapons at the occupier and when they go, all of the violence here will end," he said.
U.S. SENDS MORE TROOPS TO IRAQ
In Washington, the White House welcomed the British move, even as the U.S. sends more troops into Iraq in an effort to put down a wave of sectarian violence in Baghdad and pacify Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency.
"The president views this as a success," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "The president wants to do the same thing, to bring our troops home as soon as possible.
"The president is grateful for the support of the British forces in the past and into the future. While the United Kingdom is maintaining a robust force in southern Iraq, we're pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis."
"The United States shares the same goal of turning over to the Iraqi security forces and reducing the number of American troops in Iraq," the statement added.
Johndroe said Blair briefed President Bush about the plan during one of their "routine" calls Tuesday morning.
But Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy called Blair's announcement a "stunning rejection of President Bush's high risk Iraq policy."
"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. This should be a wake up call to the administration," Kennedy said in a statement.
"Eighteen other countries have already withdrawn or dramatically reduced their troop presence in Iraq. A majority of the American people voted last November for a changed policy in Iraq. A majority of the House and the Senate, a unanimous Baker-Hamilton Commission and numerous generals have rejected the Administration's policy in Iraq. And now our country's strongest ally has rejected it."
Opposition to the war has hurt Blair politically, with his ruling Labor Party losing seats in Parliament and in local elections in the past two years. The prime minister announced in September that he would leave office within a year.
CNN's Robin Oakley said the announcement of plans to withdraw troops from Iraq would be seen as a "turning point" by Blair as he prepares for his exit from government.
"Tony Blair wants to show he got things moving in the right direction before he goes," said Oakley.
Shadow foreign secretary William Hague of the opposition Conservative Party said British forces in Iraq were overstretched and had probably reached the limit of what they could "usefully achieve."
Anti-war protester Lindsey German of the U.K.'s Stop the War Coalition said the move was an admission that the troops were not doing any good: "[Blair] needs to come clean on what a mistake, and what a disaster, the war has actually been."
Britain contributed about 46,000 soldiers, sailors and air force personnel to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. More than half those troops were withdrawn within two months of the invasion, leaving the remaining contingent in Basra.
News of the withdrawal comes three days after it was reported that Prince Harry would deploy with his unit to Iraq in April or May.
--CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.