- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

U.S. officials are bracing for the prospect that Gordon Brown — Tony Blair’s almost certain successor as British prime minister — will act quickly to reduce his country’s military commitment in Iraq.

President Bush has been briefed by White House officials to expect an announcement from Mr. Brown during his first 100 days in power on British troop withdrawals. Such a move would be designed to boost the new prime minister’s popularity in opinion polls.

Mr. Bush recently discussed with a senior White House adviser how to handle the fallout if the U.S. were to lose its main ally in Iraq.

A source close to Mr. Brown insisted that such U.S. fears are “unfounded.”

“Gordon is a committed Atlanticist who wants to strengthen and deepen our ties with America around our shared values, and who wants to persuade the rest of Europe to work in closer cooperation with America,” he said.

Mr. Brown, speaking at a Labor Party event yesterday, defended the decision to go to war in Iraq but seemed to leave the door open to reassessing the extent of Britain’s commitment.

“The number of troops that started off was 44,000, and there are now just 7,000, and that number continues to go down,” he said in response to shouts of “Get the troops out.”

“I am going to go out to Iraq and look at the situation and see what is happening,” Mr. Brown said.

A close ally of Mr. Brown called over the weekend for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq more quickly.

“We should get out of Iraq as soon as is practicable,” said Nigel Griffiths, a former Cabinet minister, who resigned as deputy speaker of the House of Commons over a decision to replace the Trident nuclear-weapons system.

“We should consult the Iraqi government — but they cannot have a veto. This cannot be delayed. We must make our timetable known to the Iraqis.”

During a “farewell trip” to Iraq over the weekend, Mr. Blair said his successor would continue his policy.

“I have no doubt at all that Britain will remain steadfast in its support for Iraq, for the Iraqi people and for the Iraqi government as it tries to make sure it overcomes the threat of terrorism and continues to make progress,” Mr. Blair said shortly after a mortar attack on Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

“The policy I pursue is one for the whole of the government, so even when I leave government, I am sure that support will continue.”

However, senior figures in the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department have privately expressed fears about Mr. Brown.

They think that cordial relations between the two country’s leaders will be “at an end” if the incoming prime minister plays “gesture politics” over Iraq.

“There is a sense of foreboding,” one senior official said. “We don’t know if he will be there when we need him. We expect a gesture that will greatly weaken the United States government’s position.”

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, who discussed Iraq policy at the White House last week, said: “The American view is that he’s a much weaker political leader than Blair. There’s the fear in Washington that he won’t be as strong an ally.”

Mr. Bush’s aides fear that Mr. Brown will support Democratic Party demands in Congress for a timetable for a U.S. pullout from Iraq and encourage wavering Republicans to defect — leaving Mr. Bush more isolated.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said he expects Mr. Brown to support his party’s calls for the Iraqi government to meet “benchmarks” for progress or face a cutoff in funding for the war.

“Gordon Brown should be himself,” Mr. Kerry said. “I would expect him to be where the vast majority of Democrats are, which is not for a precipitate pullout, but for proper benchmarks. He will want to show that he is his own man. I would expect him to do that publicly.”

The number of British troops in Iraq is being cut from 7,100 at the start of the year to 5,500, but there is no official timetable for a full-scale withdrawal.

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