British Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced the start of a phased withdrawal of British troops from southern Iraq. And British soldiers would begin to withdraw from the country entirely if security conditions allow, Blair said. His plan calls for 1,600 personnel to leave by the end of 2007, with the rest of the force, about 5,500 troops, staying at least until 2008.
Blair says the next chapter of Basra's history in southern Iraq "can be written by Iraqis." The British have more than 7000 troops in Basra at present.
Though Blair says Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had agreed to the plan, the mood in Iraq - and indeed within the Iraqi government - was not universally in favor of the withdrawal. One of the country's deputy prime ministers, Salam al-Zawba'i, said that he does not agree with the decision to withdraw British troops, as he fears his country's neighbors will attack.
"We are a people being slaughtered," al-Zawba'i said. "We have no security organizations capable of defending us. We talked with the British defense secretary, with Mr. Tony Blair, and every official. We talked and talked and talked until we've had enough. When the superpowers take such a decision they must bear the consequences and be responsible before history for the harm that befalls the people."
Blair talked with President Bush by secure video link Tuesday about Britain's proposed withdrawal. Some critics of Bush and Blair say the British decision shows Blair has finally split from the Bush White House, which recently decided on the opposite course of action: sending more than 21,000 additional troops into Iraq.
The question of whether the withdrawal by the British forces signals success or retreat has been debated by analysts and politicians in Britain and the United States. Some analysts believe that the U.S. surge in the north and the British withdrawals from the south could end up having the same effect: a consolidation of Shiite power in Iraq, and a possible increase in Iranian influence in the south.
Denmark said today it would withdraw its 460 troops from southern Iraq by August. The Lithuanian government said it is considering doing the same.