Bush, Blair to announce 'phased withdrawal' from Iraq

Michael Smith
Published: Monday May 22, 2006

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Michael Smith, a reporter for the London Sunday Times, broke the Downing Street Minutes in 2004.

LONDON -- Tony Blair and George Bush will announce that they are to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq at a summit in Washington as early as this week, RAW STORY has learned.

The process has already been carefully choreographed in an attempt to bolster the popularity of both Bush and Blair who have suffered domestically for their handling of the war.

The scope of the phased withdrawal, which will see the 133,000 US force levels cut to around 100,000 by the end of the year and British numbers almost halved, has already been agreed, one senior defence source said.

The actual announcement will come in response to a statement from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that his government believes coalition forces are no longer needed in a number of provinces.

Blair made a surprise visit to Baghdad today for talks with al-Maliki that are understood to have included discussion of the withdrawal but full details will not be disclosed until he arrives in Washington. A joint statement issued after the talks said: "By the end of this year, responsibility for much of Iraq's territorial security should have been transferred to Iraqi control."

Lt-Gen Sir Rob Fry, the British deputy coalition commander, said recently that a withdrawal from Iraq would begin "in the pretty near future" and would occur province by province over a period of up to two years.

Fry, who is a key member of the joint Coalition/Iraqi committee examining the prospects for coalition forces to pull out, pointedly said the new government would be "extremely keen" to see coalition forces start withdrawing "in order that it can demonstrate its own sovereignty."

The timing of the announcement has been on hold waiting for the new government to be sworn in, with officials ready to prepare the Bush-Blair summit within 48 hours of al-Maliki signaling the withdrawal should begin.

It will be described as a "transition" to Iraqi security forces taking control of the country rather than a withdrawal to avoid it looking as though the allies are being forced out by rising levels of attacks on their forces.

The Americans have already lost more than 120 servicemen in the past six weeks, making it one of the worst periods for casualties since last autumn.

The British have lost eight in the same period, including five personnel killed when a Lynx helicopter was shot down two weeks ago and two soldiers killed by a roadside bomb last Saturday.

'Complete' withdrawal unlikely

The concept of transition was "very simple," one senior source said. "It can mean moving out completely, but it could mean leaving mentoring staff behind to look after the Iraqi forces."

Gen Peter Pace, the Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate last week that US troops could not completely pull out of any of its provinces this year.

But defence sources said the crucial word in that statement was "completely." Coalition commanders remain concerned that the Iraqi armed forces command and control system is not good enough to allow the Iraqis to maintain security, Pace said.

So small numbers of coalition forces will remain in some of the provinces, integrated within the Iraqi forces to "mentor" them and ease the command and control problems, allowing coalition commanders to withdraw the bulk of their troops.

US troops are expected to start withdrawing from some of the more peaceful provinces in their area of operations, with the Kurdish provinces of Dahuk, Irbil, Tamim and Sulaymaniyah first on the list.

The British will pull out of Meysan province in the north of the UK region, a province where British troops have had difficulty winning over the local population, and Muthanna on the border with Saudi Arabia.

Lt-Gen Peter Chiarelli, the US operational commander, said on Friday that three-quarters of the Iraqi army would be in control of its own sectors by the end of the summer. The new government taking charge was "absolutely critical."