BRITAIN and America are planning a phased withdrawal of their forces from Iraq as soon as a permanent government is installed in Baghdad after this week’s elections.
In a move that has caused alarm in the outgoing Iraqi administration, American and British officials have made clear that they regard the end of Iraq’s two-and-a-half-year transitional period as the green light to begin withdrawing some of their combined force of around 170,000 troops as early as March.
A senior Western diplomat in Baghdad said yesterday: “One of the first things we will talk about (with the new Iraqi government) is the phased transfer of security, particularly in cities and provinces. It will happen progressively over the next year.”
America has more than 160,000 troops in central and northern Iraq, and Britain about 8,000 based in four southern provinces. Contingency plans are already in place for the small British contingents in the two provinces of Dhiqar and Muthana to go as early as the spring.
The third to go will be Misan province, a far more restive region. A senior British officer said that Iraqi security forces might be able to “keep a lid on the violence” by the end of this year.
The Americans have increased their troop levels to help to bolster security for the elections on Thursday. But they are planning to pull out 30,000 by the new year and may reduce their presence below 100,000 in the coming months. US forces have already handed over security in Najaf and Karbala provinces and in city centres such as Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town.
The moves appear to run contrary to statements by President Bush and John Reid, the Defence Secretary, who insist that coalition forces will not “cut and run” and will stay until the mission in Iraq is complete.
Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, told The Times yesterday that a hasty exit risked plunging the country into a new bout of violence.
“Those who advocate an early withdrawal do not know what is at stake. The huge investment in blood and money sacrificed by the US could be squandered.
“There would be regional interventions by neighbouring countries and others. The fate of this country and the whole region could be endangered,” he said.
The move to hand over security to the 225,000 Iraqi soldiers and police who have now been trained for active duty comes in the face of mounting public pressure in both Britain and the US to disengage from Iraq, amid the rising death toll and spiralling costs.
An opinion poll conducted for the BBC in Iraq found that only 10 per cent regarded the removal of US troops from the country as the priority for the new government. The public has doubts about the ability of the Iraqi security forces, in particular the police, which is riddled with militia, and the army, which lacks equipment, training and leadership.