Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Brown mulls the costs of withdrawal

Brown mulls the costs of withdrawal
By Alex Barker and Stephen Fidler
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 21 2007 03:00 | Last updated: August 21 2007 03:00

What to do with the rump of British troops still stationed in Iraq is one of the thorniest political dilemmas facing Gordon Brown as he settles into Downing Street.

Deciding how and when to withdraw from the deeply unpopular war could set the tone for both his first election as prime minister - which some speculate could come as early as this year - and relations with Britain's closest ally. National interests, military tactics and the demands of domestic politics are far from aligned.

Although Mr Brown's eagerness to exit Iraq is widely assumed, no decision has been made public. Standing beside George W. Bush at Camp David last month, Mr Brown stressed there were "duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep" in Iraq. The prime minister will explain how he plans to do this more fully in a statement to MPs in October.

While a timeline is unlikely - ministers have argued setting a date would put soldiers' lives at risk - military officials are preparing for the possibility of a pull-out in the near future. "We're on the course we were always on," says one Whitehall official. "We always said we would draw down and hand over control when the Iraqis were ready. We are not staying there forever. Basra was always going to be the hardest part."

In domestic terms, Mr Brown must balance the need to defuse growing public discontent over Iraq with the need to shore up support for a "long war" in Afghanistan. Polls show a clear majority of Britons support a speedy withdrawal from Iraq, even if it is left unstable. As the withdrawal decision nears, explaining casualties becomes harder.

Tony Blair, who took Britain to war and reduced the presence in Iraq during his time as prime minister, absorbed some of this political fallout.

However an extended commitment, or messy withdrawal, is likely to ratchet up criticism of Mr Brown.

The Conservatives, who supported the invasion, have yet to call for a pull-out. This leaves Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, to apply the political pressure, at least in the House of Commons. He argues Mr Brown must "listen to his generals" and set a target date for withdrawal.

But the manner of the exit, rather than the decision itself, is likely to pose the biggest test. Anti-British militias in Basra can be expected to seek to exploit any pull-out by stepping up attacks. Leaving southern Iraq also requires addressing a series of practical issues that could be politically explosive, such as the fate of Iraqis who worked for UK forces in Iraq and the scores of people interned by the British.


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