Explanation needed on UK troop withdrawal

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement that many of his country's troops will soon leave Iraq sends a mixed signal to Iraqis at a time when they need committed foreign help. With sectarian violence showing no sign of letting up, there is a need for coalition troops to continue providing security while preparing Iraqi forces for taking on this onerous task.

US President George W. Bush, who has ordered 21,000 extra troops into the Baghdad area, has shown his continued commitment to getting the job done. He is battling political and opinion poll opposition, but knows that it would be wrong to pull out of Iraq prematurely. But questions can be raised about Mr Blair's commitment, given his decision to reduce significantly the number of British troops serving in Iraq. This comes only months before he is expected to step down as prime minister. It smacks of opportunism - an attempt to appease domestic opposition to British involvement in Iraq before he hands over power. More benignly, perhaps, it might be an attempt to smooth the way for his successor.

The move has, understandably, raised suspicions that there might be a split in the coalition. There is no evidence of this in the statements from Mr Bush or Mr Blair. They have spoken of the success of their partnership in Iraq and of a confidence that peace and democracy will flourish and prosper. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, another steadfast member of the alliance, vowed yesterday that under no circumstances would his nation prematurely withdraw the 550 combat troops and 850 other military personnel he has committed to Iraq. US Vice-President Dick Cheney, visiting Japan before moving on to Australia, praised the strength of the Iraq alliance. As part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's forces in Afghanistan, Britain remains committed there militarily, along with the United States.

There is no need to question the British leader's assertion that, with time, there is increasingly less need for his country's soldiers to remain engaged in the three southern Iraqi provinces centred on Basra. The region has experienced far less activity from insurgents than Baghdad and Anbar province, where the extra American troops are being sent, and Mr Blair can rightly claim his nation's mission has, in that sense, been a success.

Proving that point, Britain on Tuesday put Iraqis in command of the main Iraqi army unit in Basra, a landmark move towards the goal of national security independence. That responsibility will increase as the British troops withdraw. This has long been the stated objective of the coalition: to train the army, police and security forces and gradually put them in charge of providing stability so foreign troops can return home. Doing so has not been straightforward, however, with the bloody rivalry between the religiously and politically dominant Shiite Muslims and the former ruling Sunni Muslims, coupled with attacks by foreign terrorists, severely hampering the process.

Circumstances around Basra have made bucking the trend possible, leading to the freeing up of British soldiers. But there is still a long way to go for Iraq as a whole. Consider the facts: the dozens of deaths in suicide bombings and gun attacks each day across Iraq; the 3.8 million people displaced from their homes, more than 2 million of them to neighbouring countries and elsewhere; the one-third of the 26 million Iraqis who live in poverty; the failed efforts to restore damaged infrastructure, most importantly electricity, sewerage and water; and the inability to adequately restore the nation's most precious lifeline for development, oil.

As allied troops poured into Iraq in March 2003 to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein, Mr Blair was firmly beside Mr Bush in his commitment to rebuilding the country. The British leader owes his nation a better explanation of his thinking. To simply declare victory and pull out when Iraq is in such trouble would dishonour the men and women who have fought and died there.


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