During his weekly "Question Time" in parliament on Wednesday, Tony Blair was asked his opinion of claims that Iraq is now embroiled in civil war. "Does the Prime Minister agree, and where does that leave our promise not to leave Iraq until a stable democracy has been established?" That question, posed in various ways on both sides of the Atlantic, haunts both Blair and President Bush today. The two men, who met Thursday, had plenty of other issues on their agenda (Times of London), including the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, disputes on global agricultural subsidies, and NATO's assumption of a greater combat role in Afghanistan (Globe and Mail) in July, led by a British general.
Yet, as CFR Senior Fellow Walter Russell Mead tells Bernard Gwertzman in an interview, the pressure on both leaders to announce some kind of timetable for withdrawal is building. No such schedule was announced at their joint press conference Thursday evening, though the two men did speak candidly about their mistakes on Iraq. For Bush, looming fall congressional elections and sagging poll numbers mean incessant pressure from his own party to glean a light at the end of the tunnel (FT). For Blair, who pledged to turn the reins over to his deputy, Gordon Brown, before the next election is due, the pressure is even more pronounced. Visiting Baghdad earlier this week, Blair's aides telegraphed Britain's intention to turn over Basra and its environs to the new Iraqi government "within a few months," according to the Times of London. Later, Iraq's new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, confirmed: "There is an agreement for the transfer of security under a timetable which starts in June when Iraqi forces will take control of the provinces of Samawa and Amara" (Times of London). He added he expected as many as sixteen of Iraq's eighteen provinces to be under Iraqi control by the end of the year.
Many see this as a fantasy. Problems in Iraq's security forces, detailed in a recent series in the New York Times, seem to bear out warnings by CFR's Senior Fellow for Defense Policy Stephen Biddle and others of an approach to training Iraqis which would leave units more loyal to ethnic and tribal militias than to the national government. Max Boot, CFR Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, says even with the advent of a new Iraqi government there are many basic problems now years in the making: too few troops, too little focus on civilian deaths, and an inability to secure the most important prize of all, Baghdad.
Increasingly, however, it is the United States, with 133,000 troops in Iraq, plus 7,200 British forces, left holding the line. Most major powers avoided or outwardly opposed the war, and the other large and capable international contingents—Spanish (once numbering 1,400), Italian (about 2,600), Ukrainian (1,650), Polish (2,400) and Dutch (1,100) forces—are gone or leaving. A list of foreign contingents and their status is maintained by Wikipedia. True, about 850 Australian troops will remain, as will over 550 Japanese reconstruction specialists and sundry smaller contingents. Danish troops, for instance, are staying put, a surprise given the recent uproar in the Muslim world over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in Denmark. According to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the violent reaction only "strengthened our resolve for the long haul" (WashTimes).
The 550 Danish MPs will be welcomed, but they are small solace if Britain, whose control of the Basra region was the only strategically significant contribution of any of Washington's allies during the conflict, pulls its forces out.