Iraq pullout by April

Is this an end in sight? Not quite. Tony Blair will announce today that British troops will start coming home from Iraq within weeks. He will announce a time table for withdrawal from Southern Iraq where the security situation is improved.

People will say that this move is political as much as it is military coinciding with Tony Blair’s last months in office. Yes, he did make a commitment to bring the troops home and he is following through on that, but not in a vacuum. It is still dependent on the handover to the Iraqi security forces and that continuing to go well. No one rushing off in the dead of night like the Spanish or Italians whose troop contributions evaporated with changing political winds.

People have been saying it for a while that we should pull out. Most of them have been jumping the gun.

Today’s statement comes after Blair told the BBC’s Sunday AM that the operation to allow Iraqis to take the lead in frontline security in Basra – Operation Sinbad – had been “completed” and “successful”.

The process took another step forward yesterday when the Iraqi Army division in Basra switched from Coalition command to take orders directly from Baghdad.

No one can accuse Blair or anyone else of cutting and running as there is the hope that withdrawal might have a positive impact on Southern Iraq because of the view that the continued presence of British troops may have contributed to the violence in Basra.

According to the BBC and The Times among others, Blair will say that up to 1,500 of Britain’s 7,000 contingent around Basra could be out by the summer, with the first coming home by April, and 3,000 by the end of the year.

The go ahead for withdrawal, of course, comes despite George’s Bush’s decision to send 21,000 more troops to Baghdad. Are we leaving the Americans in the lurch by starting to pullout?

I don’t think so. Southern Iraq is not Baghdad and the problems there have been allowed to spiral with too few boots on the ground. Besides not all troops are immediately coming home, ensuring a continued British commitment to Iraq, at least until the end of the year.

Senior Whitehall sources have told the BBC the pullout was “slightly slower” than they had expected and “if conditions worsen this process could still slow up”.

The plan is that after the 1,500 have pulled out other troops will withdraw to fortified bases where they will monitor the Iraq-Iran border and support the Iraqi Army if needed.