Tony Blair, January 24, 2007 (from The Los Angeles Times)
Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected calls Wednesday to withdraw British forces from Iraq by October, then dodged a blistering debate in Parliament in which there was almost unanimous condemnation of the war and little optimism for a U.S. plan to boost its troop presence in Baghdad.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett suggested that British troops might complete the transfer of security responsibilities in southern Iraq to the Iraqi government by November. But she said a withdrawal would depend on "conditions and circumstances."
Blair insisted that it would be wrong to commit to any date to end Britain's military role.
"For us to set an arbitrary timetable . . . would send the most disastrous signal to the people whom we are fighting in Iraq," he said. "It is a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is deeply irresponsible."
A "deeply irresponsible" Tony Blair, today (from Associated Press)
Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce on Wednesday a new timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, with 1,500 to return home in several weeks, the BBC reported.
Blair will also tell the House of Commons during his regular weekly appearance before it that a total of about 3,000 British soldiers will have left southern Iraq by the end of 2007, if the security there is sufficient, the British Broadcasting Corp. said, quoting government officials who weren't further identified.
That rather striking reversal does not appear to reflect much confidence in the prospects of success for the President's Glorious AEI Surge currently underway. Moreover, given that British troops are deployed primarily in Southern Iraq, their withdrawal will either require a deployment of replacement American forces (thereby diluting the "surge"), or create a vacuum where Iran can exert still greater influence and/or provide a safe haven for Shiite militias to wait out the "surge" in safety (while American forces do their dirty work in battling the Sunnis).
Blair's reversal was likely motivated in large part by various domestic political pressures. Still, the fact that President Bush's most steadfast ally has reversed himself in such a public and humiliating way, and announced a clear-cut withdrawal from Iraq on a set timetable, should embolden frightened American Congressional war opponents to move beyond inconsequential and limited non-binding resolutions and begin thinking seriously about how to compel an end to this endlessly destructive occupation.
UPDATE: In comments, C&G suggests that Blair's decision may be grounded in an expectation of some sort of imminent conflict between the U.S. and Iran. That, of course, is pure speculation, but it certainly is the case that even cross-border incidents between U.S. troops and Iran, let alone larger-scale military confrontations, would leave British troops in Southern Iraq most vulnerable both to retaliatory attacks and the risk of inadvertent involvement. It is reasonable to assume (though an assumption is all it is) that the increasingly likely prospect of escalation played at least some role in the deliberations leading up to the British withdrawal announcement.