Americans would prefer UK troops to remain in position as long as they do
Ewen MacAskill in Washington, Julian Borger and Patrick Wintour
The Bush administration is becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of an imminent British withdrawal from southern Iraq and would prefer UK troops to remain for another year or two.British officials believe that Washington will signal its intention to reduce US troop numbers after a much-anticipated report next month by its top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, clearing the way for Gordon Brown to announce a British withdrawal in parliament the following month. An official said: “We do believe we are nearly there.”
It is not known whether George Bush expressed concern about the withdrawal of the remaining 5,000 British troops when he met Mr Brown in Washington last week. But sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the administration was worried about the political consequences of losing British troops.
One source said: “If the difference is between the British leaving at the end of the year or staying through to next year or the year after, it is a safe assumption that President Bush would prefer them to stay as long as the Americans are there.”
The Bush administration – focused on the north, west and central Iraq and the “surge” strategy that has seen 30,000 extra US troops deployed – has until recently ignored the south, content to leave it to the British. Now, however, it is beginning to pay attention to the region, amid the realisation that what has been portrayed as a success story is turning sour.
The UK government no longer claims Basra is a success but denies it is a failure, with British troops forced to abandon Basra city for the shelter of the airport.
On Monday the vice-president, Dick Cheney, warned against an early withdrawal. In words thought to be aimed at Congress rather than the British, he said: “No one could plead ignorance of the potential consequences of walking away from Iraq now, withdrawing coalition forces before Iraqis can defend themselves.” The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, signalled at the weekend he had hoped for a modest US troop reduction by the end of the year but this has been complicated by the political instability gripping the Iraqi government.
Ken Pollack, a foreign affairs expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, who returned last month from an eight-day visit to Iraq in which he spoke to US officers and officials, predicted that US and Iraqi forces would have to go to the south to fill the vacuum with the same level of commitment they were showing with the surge.
He said Mr Bush would prefer the British to stay: “What Bush needs is for there to be a Union Jack flying somewhere in Iraq so he can trumpet that as full British participation, but that participation has been meaningless for some time.”
Mr Pollack, who wrote on his return that there were signs that the surge was working, was dismissive of the British contribution over the past 12 to 18 months. He said: “I am assuming the British will no longer be there. They are not there now. We have a British battle group holed up in Basra airport. I do not see what good that does except for people flying in and out.
“It is the wild, wild west. Basra is out of control.”
The British say that their forces have handed over to the Iraqi military and the violence is at a much lower level than in Baghdad, with most of it directed towards British forces as Shia militia seek to claim credit for driving them out.
Mr Brown has insisted that he will make his decision exclusively on the basis of British military advice, and there is no connection between the British and US military withdrawal decisions. He has hinted that British forces will switch from combat to surveillance roles in Basra, allowing them to be reduced and withdrawn to Basra airport, a highly protected base from which British troops could ultimately withdraw.
Gen Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Baghdad, will present an assessment on the impact of the surge to Congress on September 15. Their report is expected to show a mixed picture, with a sufficient number of positive points to justify an end to the surge. In such an environment the scaling down of the British presence in the south would not appear disloyal, the Brown government hopes.
“The British are doing everything to avoid embarrassing the Americans, while at the same time continuing the withdrawal,” said Rosemary Hollis, the director of research at the Chatham House think-tank.
However, it is not clear how the prime minister would react if Mr Bush defied expectations once more and decided to press on with the surge next month.
Colonel Sam Gardiner, who is retired but still carries out war games for the Pentagon, said the violence in the south was problematic for the US military who need secure north-south communications for when they begin to move out of Iraq. He said US forces could be out of the country and into camps in Kuwait within two months, but it would take a further 10 months or so to remove all the heavy equipment – though he believed some of it could be left for the Iraqi security forces. Referring to Basra, he said: “We have trouble in the rear right now. The rear has got problems.”
Some military analysts argue that private contractors are already protecting the convoy supply lines but Col Gardiner said that a British pull-out would mean “we would have to establish security for the route from Baghdad to Kuwait. Troops would have to be taken from other missions to protect the road.”