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Britain to begin leaving Iraq

Critics of war cite demands in Afghanistan

A British soldier in Basra yesterday. British forces may drop below 5,000 in Iraq by late summer, the prime minister said. A British soldier in Basra yesterday. British forces may drop below 5,000 in Iraq by late summer, the prime minister said. (nabil al-jurani/associated press)

LONDON -- Britain's decision to pull 1,600 troops out of Iraq by spring, touted by US and British leaders as a turning point in Iraqi sovereignty, was widely seen yesterday as a telling admission that the British military can no longer sustain simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The British military is approaching "operational failure," former Defense Staff chief Lord Charles Guthrie warned this week.

"Because the British Army is in essence fighting a far more intensive counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, there's been a realization that there has to be some sort of transfer of resources form Iraq to Afghanistan," said Clive Jones, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Leeds, who has closely followed Britain's Iraq deployment.

"It's either that, or you risk in some ways losing both," he said. "It's the classic case of 'Let's declare victory and get out.' "

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has been pressed to add 800 new troops to Afghanistan to halt a resurgent Taliban and a worrying escalation of drug trafficking, at the same time that it is beset by criticism for joining the United States in an unpopular invasion and prolonged war in Iraq.

The decision to draw down forces by more than 20 percent in the southern city of Basra means that Britain will significantly shrink its military footprint at a time when the Pentagon is increasing US forces to battle militants to the north, in Baghdad, and Anbar province.

The Bush administration hastened to present the British decision as an indication that the US-led military operation was succeeding. Vice President Dick Cheney called the planned reduction "an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," and White House press secretary Tony Snow said the US-led coalition "remains intact" despite a roster that has fallen from 44 countries in 2003 to 25 now .

But the Pentagon, in its most recent quarterly report to Congress, listed Basra as one of five cities outside Baghdad where violence remained "significant," and said the region is one of only two that are "not ready for transition" to Iraqi authorities.

Once a promising beacon, Basra suffers from sectarian violence as well as Shi'ite militia clashes over oil smuggling. Ferocious street battles have broken out between rival Shi'ite groups in provincial capitals such as Samawa, Kut, and Diwaniyah over the last year.

Democratic leaders in Congress denounced the Bush assessment as misleading.

"No matter how the White House tries to spin it, the British government has decided to split with President Bush and begin to move their troops out of Iraq," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. "This should be a wake-up call to the administration. Prime Minister Blair's announced redeployment of British troops is a stunning rejection of President Bush's high-risk Iraq policy."

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said the British decision "confirms the doubts in the minds of the American people" about the decision to boost the US force.

"The president's escalation plan to send more US troops to Iraq is out of step with the American people and our allies," Pelosi said in a statement. "Why are thousands of additional American troops being sent to Iraq at the same time that British troops are planning to leave?"

In Britain, Blair's opponents quickly painted the withdrawal as an admission of failure. "The unpalatable truth is that we will leave behind a country on the brink of civil war, in which reconstruction has stalled and corruption is endemic, and a region that is a lot less stable than it was in 2003," Liberal Democratic leader Menzies Campbell said yesterday.

"That is a long way short of the beacon of democracy in the Middle East that was promised some four years ago," he said.