by Jim Mannion
Mon Nov 27, 7:58 PM ET
A debate over whether to set a timetable for a phased withdrawal of US forces from Iraq is being preempted by key US allies who have announced plans to scale back their own forces over the next year, analysts say.
The latest and most important to announce was Britain, whose defense minister said Monday the 7,100-member British contingent will be scaled back "by a matter of thousands" by the end of next year.
Poland, which commands a 2,000-strong multi-national division in southern Iraq, said Monday that its 880-man contingent will be out of Iraq by late 2007.
Italy, once a mainstay of the coalition force with 3,000 troops in Iraq, has withdrawn all but 60 to 70 troops from the country and those will be gone by early December, said Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
Even as Washington debates what to do next, intensifying political pressure in coalition countries and a steadily worsening situation in Iraq are combining to narrow options and force decisions at an ever quickening pace.
"The implication we might draw from the decision of Italy, Poland, Britain to scale down or withdraw completely is that the situation was hopeless," said Loren Thompson, director of the Lexington Institute.
"It's rare for countries to bail out of high successful campaigns. Usually people retreat because they are facing a defeat, either of the military or their strategy," he said.
While the loss of the Italian and Polish contingents had been expected, news that thousands of British troops will be departing is a blow to Washington as it struggles to keep Iraq from unraveling.
Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institute, said it is a sign that the special relationship that has produced close US-British collaboration in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq may be coming to an end.
It may mean, he said, that "Britain has decided to de-couple itself from the United States on the grounds that they are going to have to look out for themselves."
"Even if the United States has decided to stay its course, they don't want any part of that," he said.
Pentagon reaction to the development was subdued.
"The United Kingdom is a great ally in the war on terrorism and we appreciate its contributions in the war on Iraq," said Lieutenant Colonel Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman.
The British announcement appeared likely to throw fuel on the US debate over how to turn responsibility for security over to Iraqis -- and draw down US forces -- without precipitating an outright collapse of the Iraqi government or full-blown civil war.
"The fact that key allies in the Bush administration's coalition are abandoning ship will reinforce Democratic Party arguments for a phased withdrawal," said Thompson.
The Democrats say Iraqi leaders should be given notice that the United States will begin a phased withdrawal of its forces in four to six months, so that they understand they must get ready to assume control.
Senior administration officials and top US commanders, on the other hand, say a timetable would inflame the spiral of sectarian violence and make matters worse.
The US military, nevertheless, is worried about the strain on its forces and has drawn up plans to accelerate the handover of security responsibility to Iraqis with an eye to shrinking the size of its 141,000-strong combat force.
General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, has said the transition to Iraqi control would take 12 to 18 months.
That may be too long.
"Unfortunately I think that the timeline that we see that it would take to build a fully capable, competent force and for us to feel comfortable stepping away is longer than the timeline that we probably feel now that our country will support," General James Conway, the new Marine Corps commandant, told reporters last week.