British to begin Iraq pullout in April; White House says move 'success,' sign of stability
RAW STORY/AFP - British Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce on Wednesday that his country will begin withdrawing thousands of troops from Iraq within weeks.
According to The Sun, The Times and the BBC, Blair would say that the first contingent of about 1,500 troops will leave the war-torn country and return to Britain in a matter of weeks, and a further 1,500 will follow by the end of the year.
The Guardian said, meanwhile, that Britain will withdraw all of its troops from Iraq by the end of 2008, beginning this summer with about a thousand troops, citing unidentified officials. (Read the full Guardian report here.)
While a spokesman for Blair's Downing Street office declined to confirm or deny any of the reports, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirmed that Blair told US President George W. Bush Tuesday of his plans for troop withdrawal.
"We view this as a success," Johndroe said, suggesting the British move was a sign of increasing stabilization in Iraq.
"They spoke about this this morning on the phone," he said.
In the video clip below, the Associated Press discusses Blair's move. More follows below the video...
A leading Democratic senator said the move should "send a message" to supporters of Bush's 'surge.'
“After years of touting Prime Minister Blair’s resolve, the Administration should now pay attention to his new policy," Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) said in a statement to RAW STORY. "This announcement makes it all the more inexplicable that the President and leading Republicans actually want to send more American troops into the middle of an Iraqi civil war.”
The Financial Times reported that about 1,600 troops would return to Britain, but did not say when.
Blair is set to appear before parliament on Wednesday for his weekly half-hour question-and-answer session. According to the BBC and Britain's domestic Press Association, Blair is expected to make his announcement shortly after that, at around 12:30 pm (1230 GMT).
As recently as Sunday, the News of the World weekly said that Britain was preparing to cut by half its 7,000-strong contingent in Iraq in May, while the Independent on Sunday reported that the government plans to withdraw 1,000 troops by April would be postponed as the United States sent additional troops.
The political calendar has also favoured a withdrawal -- Blair is set to resign by September, with finance minister Gordon Brown the favourite to succeed him, and Labour is lagging behind the main opposition Conservatives in opinion polls in the run-up to local and Scottish elections in May.
A recent poll by ICM for The Guardian put support for Labour at 31 percent, nine percentage points behind the Conservatives.
Britain has about 7,100 troops in Iraq, most of them based around Basra. It is the second-largest foreign contingent of soldiers after that of the United States.
The country's apparent decision to pull troops out of Iraq comes soon after Bush announced he would send 21,500 extra combat troops to the country, on top of the 138,000 US soldiers already there.
According to several of the media reports, Blair will say that Operation Sinbad -- involving attempts by British and Iraqi troops to secure Basra from insurgents -- has been a success, but will also stress that hopes for a withdrawal are conditional on signs that Iraqi forces are able to take over.
It was also reported that all of the British troops still left in Iraq would move to the country's base on the outskirts of Basra.
In an interview with the BBC on Sunday, Blair rejected suggestions that he should bear responsibility for the sectarian violence in Iraq, but said Britain and the United States had a duty to bring it to an end.
He said in the interview that Washington was not pressuring London to maintain its troop levels and recognized that the security situation was different in British-run Basra than in Baghdad.
The United Nations said in January that at least 34,452 Iraqis died across the country and another 36,685 were wounded in 2006.
A total of 132 British troops have died since the start of the US-led invasion in March 2003 while there have been 3,127 US military fatalities in the same period, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.