Blair Sets Timetable for Troop Withdrawal Prime Minister Tony Blair says Britain will reduce its troop levels in Iraq. What are the implications of the move for Iraq security and for U.S.-British relations?
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Blair Sets Timetable for Troop Withdrawal

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Blair Sets Timetable for Troop Withdrawal

Blair Sets Timetable for Troop Withdrawal

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Today, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair tells parliament that some British troops are coming home from Iraq. Britain maintains 7,000 troops in the southern part of the country. And according to news reports from London, some of them will be withdrawn in the next couple of months, and some 3,000 by the end of this year. So the strongest U.S. ally in Iraq will cut its presence almost in half.

Let's get more information from Mike Williams, head of the Trans-Atlantic Security Program at London's Royal United Services Institute. He's on the line. Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. MIKE WILLIAMS (Head of Trans-Atlantic Security Program, London's Royal United Services Institute): Yes. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: The question that some Americans may be asking as they hear this news is, is this a move toward ending British involvement in Iraq?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I think that's certainly the direction the prime minister is headed in. He's been plagued since his staunch support of the president began. It was opposed by the broad majority of the British public. In the last few months, we've had increasing debate within London and the United Kingdom about the role of British troops in Iraq. Many people are still - continue to see the mission as futile. They're not happy that the - Britain has been so involved in that operation. And they see Afghanistan as a much more pressing issue that relates more to Britain's interests and one that we should pursue more.

INSKEEP: So does that mean that this withdrawal is for political reasons or military reasons?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I think there's probably a couple. First, military, in the sense that British forces are massively overstretched, much like their U.S. counterparts. The British military is much smaller, has few resources, and has been asked to do a lot around the world at operations in Europe, Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And military commanders feel that the operation in Afghanistan need - requires more attention. And those troops are most likely to be redeployed in that direction.

Second of all, the public and political situation is quite dire for the prime minister at the moment. He'll be leaving office probably in June, when his successor Gordon Brown will pick up. But at the moment, polling numbers show the Labour Party is significantly behind the Conservative Party under the leadership David Cameron, and that is in large part due to the Iraq war and the support of prime minister has given. So he's probably trying to wrap up a bit of a legacy that perhaps it's better than it would be if he stayed in Iraq.

INSKEEP: As we absorb the news of this partial British withdrawal by the end of this year, I want to ask about a distinction that the White House is drawing here in Washington, Mr. Williams. The White House has been saying, of course, for months that a premature withdrawal or any kind of artificial timetable for withdrawal would be disastrous. But now that we're learning of this British partial withdrawal, the White House describes this as quote, "a sign of success." Can both of those statements be true?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, it's difficult. I think the White House has its own political issues to worry about. And, obviously, a large ally pulling out at the same time the president has decided to increase - or as the term goes in U.S. - escalate the U.S. presence there, certainly creates a political conundrum for President Bush.

I think that the British analysis of the situation is it's much more stable, and the military commanders feel that the British presence now exacerbates the security situation in southern Iraq and that they would be better off pulling back the troop presence. It wouldn't be an immediate withdrawal, as you noted. It'll take place over time. However, many people would say that the British presence will be replaced by militias, and thus will not be increasing the security situation.

So I think that there's been a lot of debate about whether Britain is going to be pulling out too early, and, of course, much communication with the Washington about this. But I think it's simply untenable at the moment for the prime minister to escalate. It's completely out of the question. And to the current presence, it looks like British forces won't be able to do so throughout the year.

INSKEEP: And let me ask very briefly about that communication across the Atlantic. What is - what does this decision say about the relationship between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair?

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's a difficult, difficult question. There's been a lot of debate over the last year, and especially in the last six months over the quality of the special relationship. Many in Britain feel that it's a one-sided relationship, that Britain accords too much primacy to the United States and that the U.S. doesn't appreciate what Britain has done. I think the prime minister made a good gamble in the beginning trying to influence President Bush by being supportive - critical at times, but mainly very supportive and encouraging. And unfortunately, the president hasn't repaid that sort of loyalty with any sort of influence - which isn't surprising given sometimes he ignores opinion within the United States from military leadership and his own party members.

INSKEEP: Mr. Williams, thanks very much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Take care.

INSKEEP: Mike Williams is head of the Trans-Atlantic Security Program at London's Royal United Services Institute.

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