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    Middle East
     Dec 13, 2007
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British pullout stokes Iraq's southern fire
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - When then-US secretary of state James Baker suspended talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization on June 20, 1990, he famously said, "Our telephone number is 202-456-1414. When you are serious about peace, call us."

This is what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown should have said to Iraqi leaders while visiting southern Iraq last week. After all, thanks to the indifference of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and

a completely paralyzed central government in Baghdad, the British-controlled city of Basra has become a hotbed for militants and Islamic fundamentalists.

Instead, Brown chose to speak to his own countrymen - downplaying unquestionable failure in Iraq - saying, "Your war is over. We have managed now to get Iraq into a far better position." Brown's statement was far more realistic than the 2003 speech of President George W Bush, in which he said, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

Brown did not say, however, that the British had succeeded. He literally could not say that because it would have been factually incorrect - very incorrect. He also did not say, however, that they had failed. British troops will remain in Basra, he claimed, training and assisting Iraqi authorities, until the spring of 2008. Their military role is over, however, as of mid-December.

Maliki had recommended a rapid two-week transfer of local authority in Basra, and Brown - eager to rid himself of the Iraqi burden - immediately said yes. Brown acknowledged, "Not that violence has ended, but we are able to move to provincial Iraqi control and that's thanks to everything you [British soldiers] have achieved."

Let's take a closer look at what all of this means for Brown, Bush and Iraq. Brown is effectively ending a three-year military operation that has cost the lives of over 170 British personnel. It has become very unpopular in Great Britain. Brown never endorsed the Iraqi adventure, but was always too afraid to strongly oppose it, but since coming to power in June has wants to bring it to an abrupt end.

What he has done is drop British forces in Iraq to about 2,500. Good news for the British - bad news for the White House. Shortly before the British announcement, Australia and Poland also said their forces will be leaving Iraq in 2008. Some in Washington are distressed, claiming they are being abandoned by their closest ally in Iraq. They see that Brown's announcement is a de facto defeat for Great Britain and coalition forces in the war-torn country.

It makes it very difficult for Bush to tell the American public, "Wait and see, I was right on Iraq." What makes life a little easier for the US president is that if the US loses Britain, it still has France. Tony Blair's departure from the premiership coincided with the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who is willing to bury all previous animosity between his predecessor Jacques Chirac and the White House.

But France is not an active player in Iraq. It does not have troops stationed in Iraq, and apart from a recent visit by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to the country, the French have been absent from Iraqi affairs since 2003. And although a staunch ally of Washington, Sarkozy has already parted with the US on a variety of issues, primarily in his willingness to engage with Hezbollah (which the US claims is a "terrorist" organization) to advance presidential elections in Lebanon.

Brown hopes that any tension in British-US relations will be resolved when the Bush team leaves the White House in January 2009, almost certain that post-Bush America will be ruled by the Democrats, who are more opposed to the military adventure in Iraq. Additionally, Brown will now be able to call for early elections in 2009, without having the headache of explaining what British troops are doing and why they are dying in relatively large numbers in a war that according to most people in Britain does not concern them.

When Blair ordered 46,000 troops to Iraq in 2003 (one third of the army's land forces) many wondered whether these soldiers even knew where they were heading. Operation Telic, as it was called, was the largest operation of the British army since World War II. With time, it became increasingly difficult to justify what the British were doing. Saddam Hussein was arrested; it was clear that he had no weapons of mass destruction and was not cooperating with al-Qaeda. And territories under British control were not becoming a haven for democracy, as Bush and Blair had been saying since 2003.

The British will not part with the Americans completely, however, keeping a large number of civilian personnel in Iraq, hoping to transfer their mission from a military one into an economic and developmental one that can serve bilateral British-Iraqi relations. The fact that Iraqi forces in Basra are unable - by their own account - to take over from the British seems to mean little to Brown. General Jalil Khalaf, the police commander of Basra, confirmed that his men cannot deal with the security vacuum that will be left by the British, noting that recently 40 women were killed in Basra by Islamic fundamentalists for not adhering to Islamic dress code.

Their bodies were mutilated - and this while the British were there - shedding light on what will likely happen to Basra the minute the British leave. Even at the House of Commons in London, the Defense Select Committee expressed doubt over Brown's decision to pull out, fearing that a post-British Basra will become a city swarming with violence, "dominated by criminals and Shi'ite militias".

Brown promised a phased withdrawal on reaching 10 Downing Street this summer. In October, he announced that the 5,000 troops in Basra would be dramatically reduced by mid-2008, and completely returned by Christmas 2008. That was simultaneous with (and regardless of) relative US success in arming Sunni militias to combat al-Qaeda in al-Anbar province. Brown wants to portray himself as a patriot who is gravely concerned about the wellbeing of British troops in Iraq.

He reads polls well - and realizes that for the first time in 20 years the opposition Conservative Party is 11 points ahead of the Brown government. Earlier, Brown had been accused by British servicemen in Iraq of showing "contempt" for the British war effort, failing to provide his men with needed equipment and funds while serving as minister of finance. General Lord Guthrie, the former chief of defense staff, claimed that a success story in Basra "could have been made available earlier if adequate funding had been found sooner" adding, "Brown must take most of the blame."
Simultaneously, Anthony Seldon, in his biography of Blair, The Blair Effect, confirmed that when Brown was arguing with Blair

Continued 1 2 

Basra crisis is Iran's opportunity (Sep 5, '07)
Britain's last stand in Iraq (Sep 1, '07)

1. Iran: The wrong options on the table

2. Iran prepares to further its US 'interests'

3. Weak dollar induces a dream world 

4. Stop getting mad, America. Get smart   

5. Fighting talk from Turkey's generals 

6. Two countries, one survey 

7. The perfect storm of campaign 2008

8. Bernanke's bad-choice moment

9. Hope Now: Sorry, wrong number

10. The neo-cons strike back

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Dec 11, 2007)


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