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The British Are Leaving

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
February 23, 2007

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Basra is no Baghdad. There is no insurgency, no car bombs or kidnappings (at least none recently), no outposts of foreign jihadis. But the oil-rich city in southern Iraq is dangerous no less. British forces have sustained roughly one hundred casualties since taking over security duties four years ago (Iraq Coalition Casualties). Now Britain says it will draw down 1,600 troops (NYT) and reduce its primary combat role to one of training and supporting Iraqi security forces. The drawdown stands in marked contrast to the buildup of American troops in Baghdad.

The official explanation for Britain's partial pullout is twofold: First, British forces are overstretched, given their troop commitments in southern Afghanistan as well as southern Iraq. Britain has been pressed to add an additional eight hundred forces (LAT) to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Second, British officials say they have largely pacified the region around Basra and that Iraqi forces are ready to take on the bulk of security duties, with the British playing only a supportive role. Vice President Dick Cheney agreed the situation near Basra had “dramatically improved” and hailed the British drawdown as a sign of success. Writes British journalist Bartle Breese Bull in the New York Times: “In the south, Iraq's elections and constitutional processes have been far more successful in terms of security and turnout than almost anywhere else in the country.”

But some analysts say characterizing the British drawdown as progress is wishful thinking at best. In a new report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Knights and Ed Williams argue Britain has not left southern Iraq as secure as news reports suggest. Knights tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman that Basra is playing host to what is “effectively a Shiite civil war.” While British forces have taken some positive steps, like breaking up a corrupt police precinct, Knights says overall security has been hampered by militia-on-militia violence, a surge in oil smuggling, and the proliferation of advanced weaponry like explosively formed penetrators (EFPs).

The British drawdown may also indicate a growing fissure in the Anglo-American alliance. “No matter how the White House tries to spin it, the British government has decided to split with President Bush (Gulf Times) and begin to move their troops out of Iraq,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA).

Britain is merely the latest in a series of coalition members—Spain, Italy, Ukraine—to withdraw large troop contingents. The war's growing unpopularity among their respective populations must be viewed as a factor. As this Backgrounder explains, the coalition has dwindled from thirty-eight countries that supplied around 25,000 forces in 2003 to twenty-five countries and roughly 15,000 troops, the vast majority of which are stationed in the relatively peaceful south and engage primarily in training, support, and reconstruction missions.

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