Blair Plays a Dangerous Game With Withdrawal Plans

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Opinion Blair Plays a Dangerous Game With Withdrawal Plans 

February 21, 2007 - Deutsche Welle - Peter Philipp

British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Tuesday that almost a quarter of all British troops in Iraq would be brought home by the end of the year. DW's Peter Philipp believes Blair is playing a dangerous game.

Despite not being able to influence events in Iraq through his actions, British Prime Minister Tony Blair can at least use the situation there for his own domestic purposes. News that Blair intends to withdraw almost a quarter of the British occupation force in Iraq -- 1,600 of some 7,000 soldiers stationed there -- cannot be seen in any other light. It is no coincidence that public opinion back in the UK is in favor of a withdrawal, while the fact that Blair has already announced his resignation means he may not be around to face the consequences. 

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Blair finds himself in a very difficult position. Up until now, the prime minister was the United States' most dependable ally in Iraq but now he appears to be jumping ship just at the moment when President George W. Bush is looking to strengthen the troop deployment in the country. Blair could face the wrath of a president betrayed. 

While there is certainly a difference between the operations of the US forces in their crackdown on insurgents and criminal gangs in Baghdad and the British occupation of the relatively less volatile southern city of Basra, a withdrawal of the British contingent at a time when more not fewer troops is the message from Washington is certainly a risk. 

One way in which Blair could avoid the rapprochement of the Americans while scoring a domestic success would be to declare "Mission Accomplished." 

However, Washington will know better than most how successful the British contribution to security in Iraq has been while the British public would be unlikely to suddenly view the Iraq adventure in a better light just because the troops are now coming home. 

At best, Blair will be seen in the UK as trying to rectify what is seen as the biggest mistake of his premiership and as trying to shake off the shackles of US loyalty before he departs the political arena. 

It is unlikely that much will be changed in Iraq's situation by the British departure. The main fear is that the Shiite majority in the south will rise up against the occupying forces and that the United States, with enough on their plate in Baghdad and the rest of the country, will then be over-stretched. This would surely end Blair's dream of being inducted in the US Hall of Fame for honorable allies. 

However there is little to suggest that any such uprising would happen. The Iraqi Shiites have absolutely no interest in openly engaging the occupation forces, especially when they hold a majority of power in the Iraqi government already. There is no need to fight for something that has already been handed to them by a democratic process. 

The only conceivable danger would be a confrontation between the United States and Iran. Tehran could activate allies in Iraq to make life very complicated for the Americans and where better to ferment unrest than in Southern Iraq, an area of the country which would have been weakened by a partial British withdrawal?

Peter Philipp is Deutsche Welle's chief correspondent and a Middle East expert 

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