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The Bush administration is trying to put a good face on Britain's decision this week to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. In the coming months, about 1,600 British troops will leave. The decision comes just as the United States is increasing its troop commitment. And there are concerns that a phased withdrawal by British troops will leave many parts of Iraq vulnerable.
NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Prime Minister Tony Blair said the decision to begin withdrawing British troops out of southern Iraq will show the Iraqis that the U.K. doesn't want to stay any longer than necessary. Senior U.S. officials -including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney -indicated that the phased withdrawal was part of a well-formed plan.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): 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.
Vice President DICK CHENEY: And what I see is an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well.
NORTHAM: But not in many parts of southern Iraq. The British were handed responsibility of the four southern provinces, where the Shia are a vast majority of the population. Unlike elsewhere in Iraq, where U.S. troops have been fighting a Sunni insurgency, the British have been caught in a power struggle among rival Shia militias in the south.
Dr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): The problem is, in most of these four provinces, the British essentially gave up.
NORTHAM: Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the U.K. lost control of two key provinces - Basra and Maysan -after elections in early 2005 and 2006. Cordesman says those elections brought the majority Shiites to power.
Dr. CORDESMAN: Almost all of them were at least titularly Islamist, and once they came under control, the Shiites firmly were in charge of virtually the entire area, and there was little the British could do about it.
NORTHAM: Richard Beeston is a diplomatic editor of the Times of London. He recently returned from a visit to Basra, the first time since 2003. He says back then, British soldiers were on foot patrol, drove through towns in unarmored vehicles, and fished in the waters of the Shatt al-Arab on their days off. Beeston says the changes four years on are enormous.
Mr. RICHARD BEESTON (Diplomatic Editor, The Times): Nowadays, all troop movements in and out of the city are conducted at night by helicopter because it's deemed too dangerous to get on the road and it's too dangerous to fly helicopters during the day.
NORTHAM: Beeston says during his latest visit, he noticed a map of the city in one of the military briefing rooms.
Mr. BEESTON: They had divided the city into sectors that were green, which was areas where security was good and the British were tolerated - orange, where the situation was sort of so-so, and then red, which pretty well meant no-go areas for the British.
NORTHAM: Beeston says about half of the city was marked as no-go areas. British headquarters were mortared and rocketed almost every night. This is indicative of many part of southern Iraq, says Wayne White, a former state department Middle East intelligence officer. White says the South is riddled with rival Shiite groups vying for power and roving criminal gangs because there's nothing to stop them.
Mr. WAYNE WHITE (Former Middle East Intelligence Officer, State Department): There's virtually nothing down there in the way of governance that answers to Baghdad in an effective way. There are mayors. There are police. But in many cases, these people have no loyalty to Baghdad, operate along with the militias, have sympathies with them.
NORTHAM: White says there are concerns that a withdrawal of British troops could trigger a power vacuum in the southern parts of Iraq. About 70 percent of the country's proven oil reserves are in this area. White says already hundreds of millions of dollars have been siphoned off, and it could get worse once coalition forces are phased out.
Another fear is the key supply line for the U.S. military runs from Kuwait right through this area up to Baghdad. White says the British pullout could leave that route vulnerable.
Mr. WHITE: It could be that with militia's activity, criminality, that we might have to actually divert some additional people down there in order to watch these lines and be available to bail out convoys that might run into some kind of trouble.
NORTHAM: Another concern is neighboring Iran, which has a strong influence among many people and militias in southern Iraq. Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, the director of the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank in London, says both sides of the borders are controlled by militant Shia.
Rear Admiral RICHARD COBBOLD (Director, Royal United Services Institute): Inevitably, there will be a wish by some of the Shias to make the border porous, and therefore they will try to infiltrate the border.
NORTHAM: Cobbold says for now, the British forces will continue to seal that border. Prime Minister Blair indicated the last of the troops is expected to leave by the end of next year.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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