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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. British combat troops will start to leave Iraq over the coming months as more Americans arrive. The Bush administration argues that the situation in Basra and southern Iraq -where the British are based - is completely different from Baghdad and western Iraq, where U.S. forces are building up.

The spin is that British troop cuts reflect success, while Vice President Cheney said again today that any American withdrawal would be the prelude to disaster.

So is the British pullback based on political developments in Basra or in London? What does it suggest about the other coalition forces in Iraq? What does it say about the relationship between Britain and the United States? Does the British plan establish a pattern U.S. forces might follow, and does it leave U.S. forces more isolated? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255 - 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Later on in the program, our regular discussion with political editor Ken Rudin, so if you have questions about the political fallout from the Iraq debate in Congress, Al Franken's declaration for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota or other issues for the Political Junkie, you can send them to us by e-mail. The address is talk@npr.org - again it's talk@npr.org.

But first, Britain begins to pull out. We begin in London with Matthew Symonds, political editor of The Economist magazine. And it's nice of you to join us today.

Mr. MATTHEW SYMONDS (Political Editor, The Economist): Yeah, hi there.

CONAN: Prime Minister Blair's announcement today came as no surprise in London. The story had been leaked well in advance. Is it being seen there, though, as an important turning point?

Mr. SYMONDS: I don't think a hugely important turning point. We've known about this coming for about sort of nine months or so. It was a question of when exactly it was going to begin, but the timetable has been pretty much there for a while now. And the numbers involved are not really very large.

We have about 7,100 troops in Basra, and what was announced today was that about 1,500 or 1,600 would be coming out in the next few months, and that maybe another 500 would be able to come out before the end of the year, leaving about 4,000 or more there pretty much indefinitely - although there is a hope expressed that they will be able to come out by the end of 2008.

If you look at, you know, other troop drawdowns, two years ago, there were 9,000 troops in the area. It's kind of a piece, really.

CONAN: Nevertheless, there's also a change in tactics. The British are now handing over full provinces to Iraqi control. The last to go will be Basra City itself - the one that includes Basra City itself - obviously, Iraq's second city and a very important city, as well. And it seems that the British forces, they hope, will be able to withdraw largely to barracks to be involved in training after this.

Mr. SYMONDS: That's absolutely right. The British have put a lot of effort into training the Iraqi army. The Iraqi 10th Division is taking over a lot of responsibilities now, and the people on the ground there say that it's in pretty good shape. Its job really is as the British pull out - as you say, to barracks outside Basra - will be to ensure that rival Shia factions who no longer have the British to attack will not start fighting with each other.

The extent to which they succeed or not will be a vindication or otherwise of what the British are trying to do right now.

CONAN: Listening to - well, let me ask this. To what extent was the decision based on political developments in Basra, and to what extent was it based on political developments in London?

Mr. SYMONDS: I think that that sort of readiness of the Iraqis to take over has played a role. Clearly, the prime minister - who we know will be leaving office within the next few months - was keen to see that that sort of phase of withdrawal begin before he leaves. But I don't get the strong impression that there has been a big political dynamic behind this.

One thing that has been going on, though, is that there is a sense that the British army there is no longer achieving an awful lot. It has - as indeed the head of the British army indicated a few months ago in a very controversial interview - that we may actually have become part of the problem rather than part of the answer. And indeed, the attacks on the British army itself have gone up really quite significantly in the last few months.

So I think that there is a feeling that we may not be accomplishing all that much, and meantime, that we have become extremely vulnerable.

CONAN: And there is a feeling, too, that as Prime Minister Blair said - he seemed to say this announcement with more relief and weariness than with any idea of triumph - but that Basra is not all that we want it to be.

Mr. SYMONDS: I think that's exactly right. I thought that there was actually a sort of poignancy in the way Tony Blair spoke this afternoon. He was really sort of saying this is not an outcome which we expected. This is not what we hoped for, and now it's really over to the Iraqis.

He was really saying, I think, that we have now done as much as we can. There may be a bit more that we can do to help the Iraqis, and we will do whatever we can, but there's not much more road left.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get callers on the line. Our guest is Matthew Symonds. He's the political editor of The Economist magazine, with us on the line from London. We're discussing Tony Blair's decision announced earlier today to begin withdrawal of British combat troops from Iraq. A quarter will be leaving in the coming months, perhaps more later in the summer.

If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's go to Bill. Bill's with us from Florida.

BILL (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BILL: I'm a retired first sergeant, infantry. My question is this: If Britain is still our ally, and it is one fight, the logical decision would be if their area of operation is secure, why not shift those 1,500 troops to Baghdad where they are clearly needed - you know, the struggle isn't over - or to Afghanistan, where we are currently reinforcing forces there?

CONAN: Matthew Symonds?

BILL: Is this a major policy shift for the British government?

Mr. SYMONDS: Well, I think part of the answer is that more and more British troops are going out to Afghanistan. Britain was leading that operation, that NATO operation, for the whole of last year and did so with some success. And Britain is increasing its troop numbers there.

Britain has been involved in probably the fiercest of the fighting in Afghanistan over the last 18 months, and expects to be so again when fighting season starts again. So one of the reasons for this is actually a belief that probably the British army can do more good there than it can in Basra.

CONAN: Is the British army suffering from the same kind of overstretch as we see in the American Army?

Mr. SYMONDS: Yeah, of course, it's a very much smaller army, but - and it's not operating in such big numbers in Iraq, of course, by any means. I think that the maximum number of troops that the British had in Iraq, the height of operations was 40,000. But nonetheless, there is stretch, that, you know, training routines have been breaking down.

There have been real problems in maintaining operational efficiency. And one of the things that the head of the British army, General Dannatt, said when he made his remark about how useful the effort of the British soldiers in Basra was was that - and it basically did not want to destroy the army on this mission.

Bill, thanks for the call.

BILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can get another caller in. And this is Anthony. Anthony with us from Sacramento, in California.

ANTHONY (Caller): Yeah, how you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

ANTHONY: You know, I know this is about the British question, but is it not a situation of also, where ultimately, we in the United States - or our powers that be militarily - is it going to make the same commitment and make the same decision that we're overdrawn, you know, with our troops, and it seems like it's just not working - choose (unintelligible) Iraqis (unintelligible) American side wounded. It's a British question, but ultimately, don't the Americans have to face the same issue? And that was it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What do you think, Matthew Symonds?

Mr. SYMONDS: Well, I do think that there is a huge difference between Basra and Baghdad. There is actually rather little Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence in Basra. There are practically no Sunni insurgents there. There are no kind of al-Qaida operatives there. The danger in what lies ahead is between the violence that could be generated by competing Shia militias. As I was saying earlier, the hope is that the Iraqi army will be effective enough to prevent that happening. But for sure, there's no guarantee of that.

Whereas, I think in Baghdad what you have is really an absolutely desperate security situation, which - unless it is tackled - makes it really impossible for the democratically-elected government of Iraq to operate in any way at all. So I think that there is a big difference there, and I think the fact that more troops are going into Baghdad and a sort of a relative handful of British troops are going out - will be living Basra - is not really a sort of significant contrast.

CONAN: Anthony, thanks for the call. You say the - obviously, the southern part of Iraq is very largely Shia, yet there are hundreds of thousands of Sunnis who do live there. There are also other small groups of Iraqi Christians and whatnot.

Mr. SYMONDS: Absolutely.

CONAN: Have they been going through the same kind of ethnic cleansing, if you will - separation that we've seen in Baghdad and other parts of central Iraq?

Mr. SYMONDS: No, I don't think so. I mean, I have to say that I don't - I mean, this is not a part of the world that I know intimately. But, I mean, my impression is certainly that these groups are worried about what may come later. But it hasn't happened yet. But that's not to say that any point that I was making was that there is not a significant Sunni insurgency in southeastern Iraq. Well, that's one thing that I should mention, is that a concern of some of the UK military has been that if the - one of the results of the surge in Baghdad is that British - that…

CONAN: Oh, it may displace some of the insurgency to other parts of the country?

Mr. SYMONDS: Absolutely. Absolutely.

CONAN: We'll be speaking with a reporter who's been recently in Basra when we come back from a break. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As Britain announces the withdrawal of some 1,600 troops from Iraq with the possibility of more to come, we're talking about what it means for the U.S. and for the special relationship it has with its closest ally. Our guest is Matthew Symonds, political editor at the "Economist." And, of course, we want to hear from you. What does this reduction mean for the U.S. militarily, politically and for the coalition in Iraq? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And joining us now is Thomas Harding. He's the defense correspondent for "The Daily Telegraph" in London. He was in Basra four weeks ago, and he joins us from his home in London. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. THOMAS HARDING (Defense Correspondent for "The Daily Telegraph"): You're welcome.

CONAN: And is Britain, in fact, turning Basra and southern - southeastern Iraq over to the forces of the government in Baghdad, or is it turning it over to Shiite militias?

Mr. HARDING: That's a very good question, Neal. It's - on paper - meant to be turned over to the government in Baghdad, but also the local Basra authorities. But I think in reality, there's going to be a battle - whether it's a bloody one or a nonviolent one, but I suggest the former - over the control of Basra, the immense oil wealth that it has and the control of the local population.

This battle will happen between the Iraq-driven insurgents who, some of them influenced by Iran - majority influenced by Iran - who will fight with each other, increase tax on British soldiers probably to show their prowess in the coming months. And the strongest man will get to the top, which, funny enough, is what happened when Saddam Hussein came to power. But anyway.

CONAN: But anyway. Here's an e-mail we got from Diane in Intervale in North - New Hampshire, rather: Earlier today on this network, NPR, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that, in fact, the British had pretty much ceded authority in Basra to local Shia militia and that their withdrawal had little to do with a victory, yet the Bush administration is characterizing this as a win. In Britain, is the government portraying this as a success - this is victory, we're leaving?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARDING: A unique British way of doing things, yes. They are portraying it as a victory here, but there's a very slim chance in reality that that might be the case. I think your listener is pretty accurate in what they're saying that the British have ceded authority in Basra, but to who, we don't know. Particularly, yes they have been democratically elected, but what did democrat elections bring? It brought this - almost the strongest man who could muscle in enough votes to the forefront. And the British have done as much - as much as they possibly can do at Basra.

I mean, to be fair, the troops there have done a magnificent job, considering that quite small in number when you compare it to the rest if Iraq. And they have tried to root out corrupt policemen. They've tried to train up the army to get it to sort of competent level as they can. And they provided stability, and stability for some of the minority situations - the minority people there like the Sunnis which have gone from about 700,000 since 2003 to 200,000 in Iraq. I spoke to a number of them when I was last there - in southern Iraq, that is.

So the British have provided a lot of security in that part of the world. But now they can't do much more, and it is time to go. And I that the Americans are almost holding us up as a template that - the White House is at least - as to the way the rest of Iraq will go. So maybe you over - and the Americans will in a few years' time hail it a victory and leave and see what happens from there.

CONAN: And see what happens from there. A lot seems to be resting on the 10th Iraqi Division, the military unit to which a great deal of authority is being handed over in southeastern Iraq, in and around Basra. That is the national force there - the one that's a part of the national - Iraqi national entity, rather than local. To whom is it loyal?

Mr. HARDING: It should be loyal to the central government in Baghdad. It has, however, been raised almost exclusively in southern Iraqi. And unlike that tactic that Saddam employed by using troops that are recruited from one part of the country to be used to suppress (unintelligible) of the country, the new Iraqi army is not that at all. All troops are pretty much recruited locally. I know that talking to American officials - very senior ones - when I was last in Basra, that they had some apprehension about the leadership of the 10th Iraqi Division, and were suggesting that there should be a change at the top.

But the British actually set quite a lot to (unintelligible) by the 10th Iraqi Division, and they have now got personal carriers, Humvees, and as I said, pretty well trained by the British. But they do lack certain infrastructure that other divisions in NATO, for example, would have. They are all that stands in the way of the insurgence taking over. When the British pull out of Basra City in six month's time, there will be a confrontation between the Iraqi Army 10th Division and the Iraqi police and the insurgents and whoever else has joined in with them. Whoever wins that confrontation will be the person who takes away Basra in all its riches - all its oil riches - and will dictate the future of Iraq, whether it breaks down into two or three different countries.

CONAN: Thomas Harding, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. HARDING: You're welcome.

CONAN: Thomas Harding is the defense correspondent for "The Telegraph." He's been talking to us from his home in London. He was back from Basra about a month ago. One thing he did note in one of his more recent articles is that there will be a dearth of reporting from Basra over the next six months because it's one of those Iraqi cities where it's not safe to report from.

Let's see if we can get another guest on the program. Joining us now from the studios of the Brookings Institute here in Washington, it's Philip Gordon, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at Brookings as former director of European Affairs at the National Security Council. And Philip Gordon, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dr. PHILIP GORDON (Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at Brookings Institute): Nice to be here. Thanks.

CONAN: And what does this British decision and the withdrawal of these forces from southern Iraq - what does it mean for the United States in Iraq? Militarily, perhaps not all that much. Politically?

Dr. GORDON: Well, you're right. Militarily, it's not a huge deal, if you think about it. We've got 140,000 troops, so the British withdrawal of 1,600 is just a bit over one percent, and that in and of itself is not going to tremendously set us back. I think politically, though, you're right. Symbolically, to have our best and strongest and most important ally leaving while we're surging in Baghdad, you can't help but notice that that's probably not a good sign.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And it's fair to point out that some of the associated forces who had been with the British are also planning to leave. The Danes, for example - just a few hundred soldiers in Iraq and southern Iraq - but they've announced plans to pull their forces out by the end of the year - by this summer, as well.

Dr. GORDON: That's right. And, of course, you know, the Italians have already left. The Spanish have already left. The Danes will be out, and it leaves us - you know, the administration likes to refer to the coalition. We never just talk about the American forces, but the coalition. Well, the coalition, you know, is down. It was up to, you know, in the 30s when we first went into Iraq, but now it's down to, you know, some seven or eight countries. So it's mostly us, frankly. I mean, that's what this really means, is this is really being left in United States' hands.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Zack. And Zack is calling us from Hungary.

ZACK (Caller): Yes, actually kind of a comment directly along the lines of what you've been talking about. The Hungarians who I work with sort of lament the fact that Hungary has also pretty much withdrawn its troops. And they feel that probably, the perspective on Iraq would be much different if countries from all the world had a larger troop concentration there because then it would probably be viewed less as a U.S. conflict and more as a world conflict since, obviously, it does not part of the world any good to have a civil war building in Iraq. Thanks, and I'll take your answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay, Zack. Thanks very much. And well, why don't we bring both of you in on this? Philip Gordon, certainly, the mission in Iraq would be seen differently if there were dozens of countries involved.

Dr. GORDON: It sure would, and that's why it would have always been a good thing to have dozens of countries and U.N. involvement and the international community coming together and showing steadfastness. and that would have indeed sent a message that this was not just a U.S. occupation or a British-American occupation, but the world coming together. The reality it is, though, that's not the case. The world wasn't ready to do this. The coalition was always pretty thin. Now it's getting even thinner. So that's a lovely idea, and when people say the solution here is to internationalize it, they're right in theory. But the problem is no one is willing to go.

CONAN: Mm hmm. And Matthew Symonds, let me ask you this: How much coordination have there been between London and Washington over today's announcement over the British plans to withdraw? It does come - yes, the administration can say: It's different in Basra and Baghdad. Our buildup and their withdrawal, they're both the same thing. They're both success. But it's hard to say. Was this coordinated or was this Britain saying, enough, we're leaving?

Mr. SYMONDS: Well it was coordinated in the sense that there were long discussions about it which have been going on several months. There was nothing which was, you know, dropped out of the blue. If you're saying would, on balance, our American allies have preferred the British force had remained at its current levels, the answer is clearly yes. But I think that there were some political pressures - which we talked about earlier - in this country. And the feeling that it really wasn't going to make an awful lot of difference to the overall picture.

CONAN: And, of course, one thing is that Prime Minister Blair is set to leave office, we believe, some time this summer. And did he want to be seen ushering British forces on the way out as he departs as well?

Mr. HARDING: Well, I don't think that there's any sort of fault on his part that all the British troops would be out, because, clearly, they're not going to be. I think it was quite important for him, perhaps, to be able to announce as it were the sort of final phase of the operation. But I wouldn't put it much higher than that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And let me ask you, Philip Gordon - Tony Blair has been George Bush's staunch ally throughout this. Obviously, his impending departure has some ominous overtones to that, but this decision, too. He can no longer rely necessarily on his closest partner?

Dr. GORDON: Yeah. I think that's the most important thing in all of this. It's partly because Tony Blair is leaving. But frankly, even if Tony Blair were staying, the reality is that the British public is no longer so ready to buy into this notion that the special relationship gets them something that Britain should always be there for America.

Britain, traditionally, is there for America, and for Blair that was really important. And he just said to the British people I know you don't like this war, but it's important to stand by the Americans. And now that it has all fallen apart, frankly, and appears to the British public as a disaster, the next time a British prime minister says we must follow our American friends, the public may not listen.

So Blair staying or going is not really the essential point. The essential point is that Britain - as a country - is no longer so enthusiastic to be by our side. And there I just need to mention that the word Iran, and there's a concrete example of what I'm talking about.

CONAN: And Matthew Symonds?

Mr. SYMONDS: Can I just make one point of that? One of the things which I've noticed very much in the last sort of year or so - or maybe for longer - is the extent to which, in a way, the most sort of ardent supporters of the war in this country feel the most let down and disillusioned. There's been huge criticism here of the handling of the war's immediate aftermath.

And the feeling, really, is that a lot of the mistakes were entirely avoidable, that British attempts to propose alternatives were sort of rejected out of hand, and the feeling that - while we were never going to make a big issue in public - that nonetheless, we found our hands sort of tied and find ourselves involved in something which was really being handled pretty badly.

And I think it's that more than anything which may lead to some reevaluation of participation in what might be seen as sort of unilateral military adventures. But that said, I don't think that there is much going on in the way of sort of latent anti-Americanism, nor do I think that any new British government -whether it's a Gordon Brown government or a David Cameron government - is going to adopt any fundamentally different strategic relationship with the U.S., which remains infinitely our most important. And nothing will be allowed to get in the way of that, I believe.

CONAN: And Mr. Cameron, of course, the leader of the Conservative Party. We're talking about Britain's decision today to leave or bring about a quarter of its combat troops back from Iraq over the next few months. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Mike - Mike calling us from Kansas.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. One of your analysts mentioned that the pullout of the British would cause a conflict between an Iraqi military division and the police and the militias. And Senator McCain - referring to our potential pullout - used the word genocide as a consequence. And I just wonder why on both sides of the Atlantic, people are very concerned with a relatively small number of American and European losses, and are ignoring the fact that a pullout will result in a tremendous inflation of Iraqi casualties.

CONAN: Is that the perception, Matthew Symonds, in London?

Mr. SYMONDS: Well, I just think the situation in Basra is different, that there is certainly a political contest going on between armed Shia militias that may well become violent. It doesn't have to become violent, but - well, I have to say pessimistically that it's quite likely to do so. But I still think that the levels of violence there - because these are essentially Shias involved in a power play rather than the kind of sort of apocalyptic struggle that's going on in Baghdad - you can see that there will be some sort of resolution, however unpleasant it may be.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Mike. And let me ask you, Philip Gordon, about what Thomas Harding - our earlier guest - also mentioned, that this might be a pattern or a template for U.S. behavior maybe next year or the year afterwards. We never know. But this idea of turning Iraq over to Shia forces, damping down the Sunni insurgency in and around Baghdad and in Anbar Province and saying, well, okay. It may not be the victory that we envisioned, but it'll do and we're leaving.

Dr. GORDON: Yeah. I mean, the idea of turning things over to the Iraqis has been around for a long time. We don't really need Basra as a template for that. It's going to be a lot harder for the Americans, though, to claim victory and go home, so to speak because Basra - it's at least plausible with a straight face you can say, it's calm enough. We've done our job. We've done enough. The Shia are in charge. We're leaving. We're not needed. We're not doing that much.

It's not really plausible to say that in Baghdad. And that's why it's going to be much harder for the Americans, again, to do this claiming victory. We've done our job, things should be okay. Nobody thinks - looking at the violence and the potential for civil war in Baghdad - that things would be okay. So it's going to be a little bit harder for us to do what the British are doing.

CONAN: Philip Gordon, thanks for your time today.

Dr. GORDON: Thank you.

CONAN: Philip Gordon, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He joined us from their studios here in Washington, D.C. Matthew Symonds, we appreciate your spending the time with us as well.

Mr. SYMONDS: It's a pleasure.

CONAN: Matthew Symonds is political editor of "The Economist", and he joined us from "The Economist's" office and their studio in London.

When we come back from a short break, our Political Junkie Ken Rudin stops by for his weekly visit. Today, the West grows in power on the national political front. Al Franken wants a seat in the United States Senate. And Chicago's Mayor Daley, dubbed mayor for life, aims for another term.

If you have questions about the week in politics or the fallout from last week's debate on Iraq in the House of Representatives or the non-debate in the United States Senate, give us a call. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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