Britain will be withdrawing some of its troops from Iraq over the coming months, Prime Minister Tony Blair said in an address to parliament Wednesday.
"The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100, itself down from over 9,000 two years ago," Blair said. "The U.K. military presence will continue into 2008, for as long as we are wanted, and have a job to do."
Prime Minister Blair insisted that the reduction of the number of British forces in southern Iraq would not mean "a diminution of our combat capability."
Paul Reynolds, the BBC's world affairs correspondent, speaks with Steve Inskeep about the announcement.
What motivated this move now?
The British troops are only in the south of the country, remember, there's no real insurgency there, there's no Sunni-Shia violence, (though) there have been attacks on British forces from some of the Shia militias down there. But the idea was when the Iraqis were trained up, and ready to take over, the Brits would begin to leave, and that is what has been announced today, the first phase of a withdrawal.... The British are going to stay until 2008, but this is, I think, a psychological moment, a tipping point, if you like, where people are now thinking, 'Well, the end is in sight.'"
You mentioned the military rationale for drawing down the forces now. Is there a political reason as well?
Well, I think there is a political reason — though it's being presented as a military reason only. The political reason is rather similar to the kind of domestic pressures seen in the United States.
Given the political situation in Britain, is Britain about done being the strongest U.S. ally in Iraq?
Well, not for as long as Mr. Blair's around, but then, he's not going to be around for very much longer.
I think after that, you will begin to see Britain detaching itself slightly from the United States.
A lot of what went on here in the House of Commons today was very expressive of the compatibility between the Bush view of the world and the Blair view of the world. There was a lot from Tony Blair today about al-Qaeda having chosen Iraq as its battlefield and how it's got to be fought and beaten there. There was a lot of that kind of talk, which you won't hear from a new British leader.
I think you will see a slight distancing when the new leader comes into power.
Did lawmakers ask why Britain would be withdrawing troops at the same time the United States is adding more?
That didn't come up specifically, rather interestingly. And I notice that that's already playing out in the United States. But there is this contrast now.
Of course it's being explained away at the official level, by saying, you know, the British have a less difficult area to handle. They can now afford to leave. The Americans are not yet at that stage, they've got to work this thing through. You're seeing a divergent policy between the British and the Americans
I suspect the Americans have leaned on the British, because this withdrawal, frankly, is not as rapid as we had been sort of led to expect.