Britain refuses to raise troop levels
Published: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 10:32 p.m.
LONDON — Britain, which had been America's closest and most pliant ally in Iraq, said Thursday that it would not follow the United States in raising troop levels there and signaled that it would proceed with plans to hand over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces in the south.
Britain has about 7,000 troops in Iraq, most in the southern city of Basra, and says the situation there is far less dire than in Baghdad.
Officials here dismissed as speculation, though, a report in The Daily Telegraph on Thursday that those numbers would be cut by 3,000 before the end of May.
British officials offered a cautious welcome for President Bush's announcement but made clear that it would not distract them from trying to reduce British forces. In recent months, senior British commanders have voiced increasing concern that, with thousands of troops also fighting on a second front in Afghanistan, the British army is overstretched.
The announcement by Bush of an increase in the American troop level in Iraq spread unease among some opposition politicians here, who expressed concern that an American crackdown in Baghdad could provoke fighting in Basra.
"Many of us do not accept the apparent belief of the prime minister that U.S. action in Baghdad can have no conceivable effect on the security position in southern Iraq," said David Heath, a spokesman for the small anti-war Liberal Democrat opposition.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman, who customarily speaks on condition of anonymity, was asked Thursday whether Blair supported Bush's announcement. "What the prime minister fully supports is the efforts of the U.S. as announced, the efforts of the Iraqi government, and our own efforts to create the space and time to allow the Iraqi government to establish its authority and make Iraq a more prosperous country," the spokesman said. He said Britain would not decide on troop reductions until its forces in the areas where they are stationed had completed a drive to purge the local police of what it calls rogue elements.
Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, acknowledged that Britain had not marched in lock step with the White House on the current troop issue, as it has been accused of doing in the past by its critics on the Continent and at home. Blair has announced that he will step down this year, and some political analysts say that he wants a significant troop withdrawal from Iraq to offset the damage to his legacy caused by the war there.
Speaking to a parliamentary panel on Thursday, Beckett said the impact of the change in American strategy would be "somewhat limited" for Britain. "Obviously it's an issue that people will look at, but I would say that it's a change of direction, as the president says, for the United States and doesn't necessarily imply a change of direction for us," she said.
Earlier, she told reporters: "We are dealing with the security situation in Basra. It is not our intention at the present time to send more troops."
She added: "We are under way with the process of handover as the security situation improves. We will make our judgments and our decisions depending on the progress of those events."
Some Britons were openly critical of Bush's decision. "I do not think that he has put his finger on a solution for the problem," said Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a former senior British envoy to Baghdad. He said he agreed that Baghdad should be the focus and that more American troops were needed.
But, he said, that alone would not solve the problem. "Other things also have to be brought into this to fill the gap," he said, "which is represented by the failure of the government in the Green Zone in Baghdad to have any real effect on the sectarian politics."
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