Prime Minister Tony Blair?s announced last week that Britain will withdraw 1,600 of its 7,000 troops from Iraq in the coming months. Britain?s announcement came as the Bush administration is increasing U.S. troop strength in Baghdad and in Anbar Province by 21,5000. Denmark says it will withdraw its 460 troops from southern Iraq by August, and Lithuania says it may pull out 50 troops about the same time.
U.S. officials describe Britain?s announcement as a sign of the type of ?success? they would like to see in the Baghdad area. Most of Britain?s troops are in the southern region of Basra, which is considerably less violent by comparison. But some regional analysts view the withdrawal as the beginning of the end of British military involvement in Iraq.
Gerard Baker, U.S. editor of The Times of London, says Tony Blair?s decision may represent an acknowledgment of the British public?s anger over the war in Iraq and a desire to focus on his own political legacy. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now?s International Press Club, Mr. Baker says people think Tony Blair?s decision has less to do with the ?situation on the ground? and more to do with his need before he leaves office to have some sort of ?token of success,? while at the same time ?not wanting to disrupt relations with Washington.? Another important factor, Gerard Baker says, is that British troops are over-stretched and are needed in other places, especially Afghanistan. In fact, Defense Minister Des Browne announced earlier this week that Britain would send 1,700 more troops to Afghanistan, where British forces are involved in ?some very serious fighting? against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Nadia Bilbassy, senior Washington correspondent with Al-Arabiya television, says Britain?s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is viewed positively by many Arabs, who think that ? if you want to fight al-Qaida ? Afghanistan is the right ?battlefield,? rather than Iraq. She adds that, even though the Bush administration has characterized the British draw down in Iraq as a sign of success, the Arab World views Tony Blair?s decision as a sign of defeat for the U.S.-led coalition.
Danish journalist David Trads, editor-in-chief of Nyhedsavisen (The Newspaper), says that the British and Danish decisions to withdraw their troops from Iraq were closely connected. He notes that Danish troops actually work under British command in southern Iraq. Although the decision from Lithuania has yet to be finalized, Mr. Trads says, people in Denmark are of the opinion that Lithuania, as well as ?most European supporters of the Iraq war,? will leave. Because the Iraq war is so unpopular with the populace, he adds, many European heads of government are trying to distance themselves from President Bush?s current Iraq strategy.
Italy, Spain, Ukraine, Japan, and New Zealand have already withdrawn troops from Iraq. For now, Britain will remain the second largest foreign military presence in Iraq, after the United States. South Korea is third, but plans to withdraw half of its troops soon. Other countries with hundreds of troops remaining in Iraq include Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Azerbaijan, El Salvador, and Australia.
To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.