LONDON -- Britain's decision to pull 1,600 troops out of Iraq by spring, touted by U.S. and British leaders as a turning point in Iraqi sovereignty, was widely seen yesterday as an admission that the British military can no longer sustain simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The British military is approaching "operational failure," warned Lord Charles Guthrie, former chief of the defense staff.
"Because the British army is in essence fighting a far more intensive counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, there's been a realization that there has to be some sort of transfer of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan," said Clive Jones, a lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Leeds.
"It's either that, or you risk in some ways losing both," he said. "It's the classic case of 'Let's declare victory and get out.'"
Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has been pressed to send 800 more troops to Afghanistan to halt a resurgent Taliban and an escalation of drug trafficking at the same time that it is beset by criticism for joining the United States in an unpopular war in Iraq.
The decision to draw down forces by more than 20 percent in the southern city of Basra means that Britain will significantly shrink its troop contribution as the Pentagon is increasing U.S. forces to battle militants in Baghdad and Anbar province.
The Bush administration hastened to present the British decision as an indication that the U.S.-led military operation was succeeding. Vice President Dick Cheney called the reduction "an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," and White House press secretary Tony Snow said the coalition "remains intact" despite a roster that has fallen from 35 countries in 2004 to 25 now.
But the Pentagon, in its most recent quarterly report to Congress, listed Basra as one five cities outside Baghdad where violence remained "significant," and said the region is one of only two in Iraq that are "not ready for transition" to Iraqi authorities.
Once a promising beacon, Basra suffers from sectarian violence as well as Shiite militia clashes over oil smuggling. Street battles have broken out between rival Shiite groups in provincial capitals such as Samawa, Kut and Diwaniyah over the past year.
Democratic leaders in Congress denounced the Bush assessment as misleading.
"No matter how the White House tries to spin it, the British government has decided to split with President Bush and begin to move troops out of Iraq," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. "This should be a wake-up call to the administration. Prime Minister Blair's announced redeployment of British troops is a stunning rejection of President Bush's high-risk Iraq policy."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said the British decision "confirms the doubts in the minds of the American people" about the decision to increase the U.S. force.
"The president's escalation plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq is out of step with the American people and our allies," Pelosi said in a written statement. "Why are thousands of additional American troops being sent to Iraq at the same time that British troops are planning to leave?"
In Britain, Blair's opponents quickly painted the withdrawal as an admission of failure.
"The unpalatable truth is that we will leave behind a country on the brink of civil war, in which reconstruction has stalled and corruption is endemic, and a region that is a lot less stable than it was in 2003," Liberal Democratic leader Menzies Campbell said during Parliament debate. "That is a long way short of the beacon of democracy in the Middle East that was promised some four years ago."
For Blair, the decision to begin reducing Britain's 7,100 troops in the south to 5,500, with further withdrawals possible this year, was almost a political necessity. His Labor Party is trailing in the polls ahead of regional elections in the spring, and Blair is preparing to hand over the country this year to his likely successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who favors a phase-out of Britain's deployment in Iraq.
In announcing the troop reductions, Blair said they coincide with the increasing assumption of security responsibilities by Iraqi military and police forces. He said British troops will continue to patrol the border with Iran and remain at their main base in Basra through at least 2008, to assist Iraqi forces if needed.
"It is important to show the Iraqi people that we do not desire our forces to remain any longer than they are needed; but whilst they are needed, we will be at their side," Blair told Parliament.
"The situation in Basra is very different from Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency. There is no al-Qaida base. There is little Shiia on Sunni violence," he said.
"What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by Iraqis," Blair said.
Most analysts say that Blair's assertion that significant progress has been made in southern Iraq stretches the facts. Though not nearly as chaotic as the capital and the Sunni heartland, the south remains unstable and frequently bloody. Shiite militias and armed gangs lord over cities such as Basra and Amara as well as desolate stretches of marshland and desert.
British bases in Basra regularly come under mortar fire. British troops engage in almost daily gunfights with militiamen. In recent months, the British offices all but evacuated their downtown base and moved to a more secure site at the city's airport.
A study issued this week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that has been sympathetic to Bush administration foreign policy goals, notes that Basra, once one of Iraq's more liberal and cosmopolitan cities, has become a bastion for Islamists who use the south's oil wealth to "fill their war chests."
"The province has suffered one of the worst reversals of fortune of any area in Iraq since the fall of Saddam's regime," the study said.
Military and political analysts said a British drawdown would leave a vacuum that could be filled by militiamen displaced during stepped-up U.S. operations in Baghdad. Equally serious, they said, is the fact that Basra and its environs are a crucial supply link to U.S. forces in Baghdad.
"The fear is essentially that when [Britain] pulls out, the militias will come to control the situation, rather than the Iraqi army," said Michael J. Williams, head of the trans-Atlantic program at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. "The fact is that the troops that work best alongside the Americans are leaving the country."
Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.