Blair trips up Bush

Private Luke Simpson, known as "Boob" to his friends, was buried in London on Wednesday.

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) - Private Luke Simpson, known as "Boob" to his friends, was buried in London on Wednesday.

He is the 123rd British serviceman to die in Iraq since March 2003.

That same day, Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Britain would withdraw about 1,600 troops from Iraq in the coming months and might cut a further 500 from its 7,100-strong contingent by late summer if Iraqi forces can secure the country's south.

The prime minister's speech was optimistic, if not quite victorious. The goal of the British troops deployed mainly around Basra in southern Iraq was to gradually transfer responsibility for security in the country to the Iraqi army. It appears that Operation Sinbad, a joint British and Iraqi mission targeting police corruption and militia influence in the southern city of Basra, is over.

On Tuesday Blair talked with U.S. President George Bush over the phone, so it was not surprising that Washington's official reaction coincided with Blair's statement almost word for word.

"We're pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they [the British] are able to transition more control to the Iraqis," U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

London and Washington seem to be happy with their common success in Iraq, which only highlights a paradox: America's main ally in the Iraqi campaign has announced a troop withdrawal at a time when the Bush administration sees its only salvation in building up forces there.

This is arguably the worst time for Blair to trip up Bush.

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution sharply criticizing Bush for his new strategy, which involves dispatching 21,500 troops (two marine battalions and five army brigades) to Iraq. The Senate blackballed a similar resolution, but this has not stopped the Democratic opposition from planning another antiwar maneuver - the revocation of the war mandate Congress granted to Bush in October 2002.

Blair's announcement of the withdrawal at this critical hour for the U.S. administration can be interpreted only as the beginning of a split in the Western coalition in Iraq.

The British prime minister's statement has strengthened the isolation of President Bush. The Democratic majority in Congress is becoming increasingly intolerant of the White House's Iraqi strategy.

Moreover, London has turned from Washington's closest ally into a bad example.

"America's leading ally in Iraq has decided that a timetable for the phased redeployment of troops is the only responsible policy to help force Iraqis to stand up for Iraq. After years of touting Prime Minister Blair's resolve, the administration should now pay attention to his new policy," Senator John Kerry has said.

Blair's withdrawal timetable has taken Britain unawares, especially because Blair himself warned the House of Commons on January 25: "Pulling out now would send the most disastrous signal to the people of Iraq."

Nevertheless, the prime minister did what he had to do. I consider it a fine example of personal courage, a sacrifice on the altar of the Labor Party's future.

For the last four years, Tony Blair has supported the opportunist U.S. operation in Iraq like Bush's lapdog, greatly damaging his political career. To cushion the effects his mistakes could have on his party, Blair has hinted that he will soon leave 10 Downing Street. He implied that he hopes the Labor Party will do better in local elections in May with a new leader, Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer.

An ICM poll conducted for The Guardian shows that the Conservatives' popularity has risen three points on last month, to 40%, while Labor's remains unchanged at 31%.

By announcing a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, Blair has for the first time indirectly admitted that his Iraq policy was misguided. But will British voters accept his sacrifice, and will this shift the balance in favor of the Labor Party?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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