Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Bush administration maintained yesterday that its Iraq coalition was still in good shape despite announcements by Britain and two other countries that they would withdraw all or some of their troops by the end of the year.

“The coalition remains intact,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a visit to Berlin. “It is the plan that — as it is possible to transfer responsibilities to the Iraqis — coalition forces would no longer be needed.”

Miss Rice spoke just hours after British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced in Parliament that Britain would cut 1,600 troops from its 7,100-strong force in southern Iraq in the coming months.

He said several hundred more could come home by late summer if conditions permit. There were 40,000 British troops in Iraq when the war began, and roughly 9,000 in place two years ago.

Denmark said it planned to withdraw its 460 troops from southern Iraq by August. A Lithuanian Defense Ministry spokeswoman said her country was “seriously considering” withdrawing its 53 troops from the same area in August.

The United States put the best face on the announcements, declaring the withdrawals were evidence of the improved security situation in southern Iraq.

But analysts on both sides of the Atlantic disagreed.

British military analysts said the decision to reduce troops in Basra was not warranted by conditions on the ground. Rather, they cited domestic politics, an overstretched military and fears of being caught in a struggle between the United States and Iran.

Mr. Blair’s decision, said Toby Dodge of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, was based on his desire “to clear the decks so that he is remembered for something a bit better that the invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath.

“This ‘mission accomplished’ stuff is rubbish. Basra is incredibly dangerous,” said Mr. Dodge.

The troop cut also reduces the likelihood that Prince Harry, son of Prince Charles and third in line to the throne, will find himself as a soldier in Iraq.

The prince, a second lieutenant in the Household Cavalry, reportedly has threatened to quit the military if his unit is sent to Iraq without him in April. But military brass worry that he would become a “bullet magnet” for insurgents hoping to make a public relations splash.

Mr. Blair said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had agreed to his plan, under which British troops will remain at least through next year, increasingly focusing on support and training of Iraqi forces.

If those forces show themselves capable of maintaining order, he said, the British commitment could fall to fewer than 5,000 troops by late summer.

British army Maj. Chris Ormond-King, a spokesman for the British-led multinational force based in Basra, said in a briefing last month that the overwhelmingly Shi’ite Muslim south did not have the same sectarian problems that have spurred fighting in Baghdad and other parts of the country.

“The militias are not a problem for us,” he told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. “What is a problem are some of the rogue elements in those militias.”

He acknowledged that a small British garrison in the heart of Basra is routinely hit by mortar fire and small arms attacks from groups protesting the multinational force’s presence in the country.

In addition to the political pressures, Mr. Dodge said, the British army “is incredibly overstretched” and can no longer effectively operate both in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.

“They are wonderful soldiers who are grievously understaffed and underfunded, stretched way too thin and with almost no modern equipment to speak of,” agreed Robert Killebrew, a U.S. national security analyst who follows Iraq closely.

British troops have obligations around the world, and have a significant presence in Afghanistan, where they are working with U.S. and NATO troops to beat back the Taliban and create a viable Afghan state.

Mr. Dodge said that behind closed doors in the British Foreign Office, there was a strong sense that the attacks against British troops in southern Iraq were backed by Iran, rather than the result of the local security situation.

Maj. Ormond-King said Iran’s influence was palpable among Shi’ite groups in the south, who are receiving money, logistical help, military training and arms.

Washington has accused elements of the Iranian government of providing radical Shi’ite militias with sophisticated bomb technology that has killed some 170 U.S. soldiers.

If tensions between the United States and Iran were to worsen and Washington decided to attack Iranian facilities, British forces in southern Iraq would be on the front lines of any Iranian retribution, Maj. Ormond-King said.

Mr. Dodge said there was “the real fear that British troops will get caught between the United States and Tehran on this.”

Iraqi forces have already taken over from British-led troops in two of the south’s four provinces. Plans to transfer control of a third province, Maysan, have been put on hold over recent security concerns.

But Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the British had long ago lost the political fight and ceded Basra and Maysan to Shi’ite Islamist factions.

“The British were not defeated in a military sense, but lost in the political sense if ‘victory’ means securing the southeast for the central government and some form of national unity,” Mr. Cordesman said.

• David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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