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Britain Announces Troop Drawdown in Southern Iraq

February 21, 2007 at 1:50 PM EDT
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GARY GIBBON, ITV News Correspondent: Mr. Blair could not announce mission accomplished in the southern region around Basra, but rather that British forces in large numbers had achieved about as much as they could.

TONY BLAIR, Prime Minister of Britain: What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be, but it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history will be written by the Iraqis.

GARY GIBBON: So the troop numbers have come down from their height at the time of the war. At the end of last year, it was thought they might be able to come down faster.

It’s now possible that, after dropping below 5,000 this summer, they carry on dropping periodically until they hit around 2,000 to 3,000. Then, they don’t drop below that for quite a while.

TONY BLAIR: The best guide for our own actions is, in fact, the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government are keen on the proposal to make sure that the Baghdad security plan is put in place and implemented. They are equally keen that the British drawdown in Basra.

GARY GIBBON: The Conservative leader David Cameron said Mr. Blair should have used what could be his last common statement on Iraq to commitment himself to an inquiry into what went wrong. Longstanding opponents of the war told Mr. Blair it would stain his record in government.

MENZIES CAMPBELL, MP, Liberal Democrat Leader: We will leave behind a country on the brink of civil war, where reconstruction has stalled, where corruption is endemic, and a region which is a lot less stable than it was in 2003.

MALCOLM RIFKIND, MP, Conservative Party: I’m afraid he still has the obligation to apologize to this house and to this country for his foolish decision to take this country to war in the first place.

GARY GIBBON: Mr. Blair suggested that, if the Iraqi troops took over the patrolling of Basra, British troop casualties might fall.

The statement came on the day of the funeral of Private Luke Simpson, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, as he returned from a routine patrol. Around 600 attended the funeral at Howden in East Yorkshire. Luke Simpson was the 101st British soldier to die in action in Iraq.

'Handing over security to Iraqis'

Richard Gowan
New York University
The British are doing what the Iraq Study Group suggested the Americans should do. They're drawing their forces down. They're handing over security to the Iraqis. They're not surging.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on Blair's decision, we turn to Demetri Sevastopulo, the Pentagon and intelligence correspondent for the Financial Times, and Richard Gowan, a research associate at the Center for International Cooperation at New York University.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Mr. Gowan, the contrast, of course, is quite stark: As the U.S. is sending more forces to Iraq, the British are drawing down theirs. What is driving Blair's decision?

RICHARD GOWAN, Center for International Cooperation: Well, essentially, the British are doing what the Iraq Study Group suggested the Americans should do. They're drawing their forces down. They're handing over security to the Iraqis. They're not surging.

That is precisely the strategy that George Bush rejected earlier this year, but Tony Blair wanted to follow that strategy, even before the study group report, and he's following it now.

MARGARET WARNER: Demetri?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO, The Financial Times: I think that's right. I think the broader point is that this is the first time since the start of the Iraq war that you've seen the British actually decouple themselves from the Americans.

Tony Blair is under huge pressure at home. A large majority of the population disapprove of his handling of the situation in Iraq. His personal popularity ratings are actually lower than President Bush's. And he also had a designated successor in waiting, which is Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, who wants to start his tenure later this year with a slightly cleaner plate or a cleaner slate on Iraq.

Risks of the drawdown

Demetri Sevastopulo
Financial Times
One of the concerns going forward is, if you had more violence on troops in the southern region, it would make it more difficult to get supplies through to Baghdad and could then be detrimental to the operations there.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Richard Gowan, back to the security situation on the ground in Iraq. Is the situation in southern Iraq stable enough to warrant this move? In other words, particularly in Basra, where the British troops really have been, is that secure enough that the Iraqi army can handle it?

RICHARD GOWAN: Well, Basra is good by the standards of Baghdad. Frankly, it is not perfectly secure; it's very far from perfectly secure.

I think that the British forces, since they shrunk even before now, have actually despaired of enforcing full control over Basra in southern Iraq. But, yes, it is more stable, and also it is a homogenous Shia and Muslim area. It's not an area of civil war between Sunnis and Shias. So the Iraqi forces there do have at least a marginally better chance than those in central Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what are the risks, if there are risks, in the British drawdown?

RICHARD GOWAN: Well, the problem is that, although southern Iraq is relatively stable, it is also strategically absolutely crucial, because it is the main route of supply to the American forces in central Iraq, and it's pretty vulnerable to Iran.

And we're in a phase now when this is really not about the U.S. and Iraq and the British and Iraq but the U.S. confronting Iran. And if that confrontation were to escalate and you were to see Iranian forces push over the border into southern Iraq, that would be very, very dangerous, both for the remaining British and for the Americans in Baghdad, who would see their lines of supply under threat.

MARGARET WARNER: Demetri Sevastopulo, does the Pentagon see it that way, that this region is absolutely essential to the supply of American forces farther north?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: I think that I do. I mean, the supply routes all go through that area, so it's very important that you can get your materials through. I think, though, the Pentagon is also more focused on Baghdad.

And one of the problems at the moment is that that's where the violence is. One of the concerns going forward is, if you had more violence on troops in the southern region, it would make it more difficult to get supplies through to Baghdad and could then be detrimental to the operations there.

MARGARET WARNER: And if violence were -- more violence were to flare in the south, would the U.S. troops have to pick up the slack? Or are the British leaving enough of a force that they could resurge themselves, essentially, there?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: It really depends on how badly the violence would increase. At the moment, the British are going to reduce by about 1,600. They will still have 5,500 or so troops in the Basra region, which can come back in and help the Iraqis on a case-by-case basis. However, if there's a lot of violence, the U.S. will have to come in, I think, and help the British, as well. It really just depends on how the situation evolves.

British future in Iraq

Richard Gowan
New York University
The British are pulling back off the streets of Basra, away from urban peacekeeping, to a number of bases, one in a former Saddam palace in Basra, one at Basra airport. So they're consolidating into secure bases.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Gowan, what is going to be the British role? How will that change, or the British mission, or where they deploy, with this reduced force?

RICHARD GOWAN: Well, essentially the British are pulling back off the streets of Basra, away from urban peacekeeping, to a number of bases, one in a former Saddam palace in Basra, one at Basra airport.

So they're consolidating into secure bases. And simultaneously, they're going to be deploying more, we hear, along the border, doing more to try and limit Iranian penetration into southern Iran, which is actually the major security threat, not the occasional riot and the occasional killing on the streets of Basra. It's actually the Iranians putting arms and even men across the border.

MARGARET WARNER: But now, Tony Blair did say today that British forces are coming under what we called "regular and intense fire" from extremist groups, notably the Mahdi army of cleric Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Does pulling back amount to or could it trigger surrendering parts of southern Iraq and Basra to, in fact, those same Shiite militias?

RICHARD GOWAN: To be absolutely honest, for the last couple of years, British forces in southern Iraq have not had full control of territory. They've quite often been faced with severe violent challenges where they've been patrolling. They've already left some areas essentially to local forces and militias.

This is really just solidifying a strategy of focusing on the supply routes, focusing on having some strong, credible bases, but not trying to control the entire area.

MARGARET WARNER: Back on your domestic front, the British domestic front, how is this move being greeted in Britain?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Well, the opposition party -- the Conservative leader, David Cameron, Sir Menzies Campbell, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, they've welcomed the move, although they will say, "Too little, too late."

You heard some of the comments you played earlier about Iraq being left on the brink of civil war. And I think there's been a stream of comments coming out of former generals in the U.K. over the last year suggesting that actually the presence of U.K. forces in Iraq has exacerbated the problem. That's an argument that General John Abizaid, some say, has been making privately to the civilian leaders in the Pentagon here in the States.

So Tony Blair has been under huge pressure. This move will be welcomed, but there will still be a lot more pressure on him to reduce troops going ahead in the months to come.

MARGARET WARNER: And then talk a little bit more about how the impending -- I mean, Blair's impending departure from office some time this spring, we're led to believe, and Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, running for that position played into this?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Well, I think one of the interesting contrasts between the U.K. and the U.S. is that President Bush does not have a designated successor. Dick Cheney is not running for president.

Tony Blair has a designated successor. It is Gordon Brown. And Gordon Brown, in the pollings at the moment, he is running behind David Cameron. If you were to pit him against David Cameron in a general election, at the moment he would lose.

MARGARET WARNER: The Tory leader.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: The Tory leader. So the Labor Party, as a whole, and Gordon Brown specifically, are very concerned that Tony Blair has led them down a path that is going to cause them to lose to conservatives.

And remember that Tony Blair has led Labor through three successful general elections. He's been in power for just about 10 years. And they are very worried that the Conservatives will finally come back and take their throne away.

MARGARET WARNER: So at least his hope is that, by having this very high-profile withdrawal, or at least drawdown, it helps mitigate that?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: It helps mitigate that. In some senses, it gives Gordon Brown a clean slate from which to start. The policy has been decoupled from President Bush's policy. Gordon Brown will have a slightly freer hand to do whatever he wants to do going forward.

And I think the Labor Party will be a little bit more relieved that -- at least the trajectory is right, and they can tell the British people they are moving towards getting out of Iraq.

State of the coalition

Demetri Sevastopulo
Financial Times
You have a lot of U.S. allies pulling out. While the numbers themselves may be not significant, symbolically it's going to make life very difficult for the president.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, the state of the coalition, Richard Gowan. You heard Secretary Rice say the coalition remains intact. But Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "This move accelerates the breakup of the coalition." Where's the truth in all this?

RICHARD GOWAN: Well, firstly, you can't just look at Iraq. You've also got to look at what Britain and a number of other European powers are doing alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan.

There is still a very strong British commitment, and indeed European commitment, to reinforcing the Americans in Afghanistan, reinforcing the Afghan government, and trying to get some sort of half-decent result there. So the coalition is still strong in Afghanistan.

Yes, it's breaking up in Iraq, but the ultimate question is, what happens on Iran? Because Tony Blair was, we think, the only British politician who was really in favor of military action against Iran. Gordon Brown probably isn't. And if there is any sort of conflict with Iran, goodness knows what that does to the coalition.

MARGARET WARNER: Your thoughts on the coalition?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: I think it's a very bad day for President Bush. The Danes have said they're going to pull out their -- I think roughly 600 or 700 troops. The Lithuanians have said that they're seriously considering pulling out their troops.

If you remember, last year, when President Bush went to South Korea, he was greeted with the news that the South Koreans were going to reduce their troop presence by half. You have a lot of U.S. allies pulling out. While the numbers themselves may be not significant, symbolically it's going to make life very difficult for the president.

MARGARET WARNER: Demetri Sevastopulo and Richard Gowan, thank you.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Thank you.