Britain’s Iraq troop withdrawal plan fuels debate in US

Some in US call it a sign of progress while others fear growing isolation.

BRITAIN’S timetable for withdrawing forces from Iraq has stirred a heated debate in the United States.

The White House declares it a sign of progress, but critics charge that the US is becoming increasingly isolated in its war effort.

Democrats have seized on the British phased pullout – and that of Denmark – to put pressure on President George W. Bush to bring American troops back home. The announcement by Washington’s closest ally on Iraq could not be more ill-timed, with US forces being bolstered in the war-torn country by the Bush administration.

Republican Senator John Warner, who supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 but is now fervently opposed to a troop surge, said: “What I’m worried about is that the American public will be quite perplexed by the President adding forces while our principal ally is subtracting forces.

“That is the burden we are being left with here.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair apparently briefed Mr Bush of the decision on Tuesday.

It was the culmination of months of simmering differences between the transatlantic allies, which was most conspicuously manifested in October, when Mr Blair embraced the Iraq Study Group report supporting a troop drawdown, while the American leader brushed it aside.

But the announcement came as a surprise to many, especially the Republicans, who were caught unawares after a week in which their defence of the administration’s war strategy appeared to be gaining traction after Democrats in the House of Representatives had stung them with a non-binding resolution opposing the deployment of an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq.

Since then, however, they have denied the Democrats a similar victory in the Senate and have applied growing pressure to support war funding for Washington’s effort.

Britain’s decision could derail this momentum. But the Bush administration was putting on a brave front.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the move to withdraw 1,600 British troops – leaving still about 5,500 – “indicates that there’s been some progress in Basra” in southern Iraq, where the forces were stationed. He said the reduction was largely due to Basra’s more stable security climate compared with Baghdad.

Speaking in Japan, Vice-President Dick Cheney said “significant progress” in Basra had been made to warrant the British response.

The Democrats, however, refused to accept the argument. They latched on to Mr Blair’s announcement as support for their position that a political solution is needed rather than sending more troops into a four-year battle, which has killed 3,148 American soldiers.

Senate Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted that the staged withdrawal “confirms the doubts in the minds of the American people” about plans for a troop increase. “Why are thousands of additional American troops being sent to Iraq at the same time that British troops are planning to leave?” she said.

The British decision, however, is fraught with risk – a view not lost on Washington. There is a grave danger that rival Shi’ite militias, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, will set on each other and that the Sunni and Christian minorities will become victims of ethnic cleansing.

Britain’s decision to disengage could also effectively signal a turning point in the war if it prompts smaller coalition forces to follow suit. Denmark could be the first of several to follow.

That would mean the US increasingly standing alone in a country teetering on the brink of a major implosion.

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