Row over British troop deployment reveals Bush’s unpopularity, Blair’s shattered credibility
Associated Press Writer
LONDON (AP) – British troops would be redeployed in Iraq to help stabilize the conflict-torn country, not boost President Bush’s chances of re-election, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday as he tried to quell dissent among skeptical lawmakers.
Many members of Blair’s governing Labour Party are deeply suspicious of a U.S. request for a battalion of British troops, currently stationed in southern Iraq, to move north to the more volatile, U.S.-controlled sector near Baghdad.
Blair said he has not yet decided whether to grant the request, which he says came from U.S. commanders trying to free up American forces to intensify their attack on insurgents.
Critics, however, say the move would provide political cover for Bush, who has faced repeated accusations from Democratic nominee John Kerry that America is going it alone in Iraq. Some suggest the redeployment would allow Bush to reassure voters that U.S. troops were not alone in Iraq’s most volatile areas.
“We are about to enter a period of increased activity in Iraq. This is nothing to do with the American elections. It has everything to do with the Iraqi elections in January,” Blair told the House of Commons.
“We have to create the conditions in which fair elections under United Nations supervision can take place.”
Blair confirmed that troops from the Scottish regiment, the First Battalion Black Watch, could be redeployed from the southern port city of Basra.
“There are some 650 troops involved. I cannot say where in Iraq they are going. They will remain under the operational command of U.K. forces,” he said, adding they would be home in Britain by Christmas.
Blair and his ministers insist it is a military matter, to support American forces rather than shore up Bush ahead of the Nov. 2 election.
The senior British officer in Iraq, Gen. John McColl, agreed.
“The request is in response to the situation on the ground. There’s been a spike in insurgent activity as a result of the Ramadan period,” McColl told British Broadcasting Corp. radio on Wednesday.
But the fact that many lawmakers don’t believe Blair shows how far his trust ratings have slipped since the war, and how unpopular Bush is in Britain.
“There is a complete breakdown of trust in the prime minister,” said Geoff Andrews, a political analyst at the Open University. “Also, Bush is extremely unpopular and Blair has not convinced anybody that he is not just following the Bush line.”
Labour backbencher Marsha Singh urged Blair to refuse the request. He said the “hole dug over Iraq is big enough” and suggested it was time Blair listened to the British people and “high time we stopped digging.”
Blair said he could not agree.
“I believe we are right to be in Iraq. I believe we can be immensely proud of the contribution our British troops have made there,” he responded.
Several lawmakers have asked why America, which has some 130,000 troops in Iraq, needs British troops to plug a gap.
“I think it is important to understand this. Although it is true that there are 130,000 American troops … not all of those troops are suitable for the particular tasks they are being called upon to do,” Blair said. “It is important that we recognize that there is an enormous amount of cover that the Americans provide us.”
Britain has some 9,000 troops in Iraq, operating in the relatively peaceful area around the southern port city of Basra. Sending British soldiers into the U.S.-controlled sector, where there are more attacks by insurgents, carries a risk of higher casualties and would be politically sensitive for Blair. Sixty-eight British soldiers have been killed in Iraq, compared with more than 1,000 U.S. troops.
Forty-five lawmakers have signed a motion demanding a Commons vote on whether the request should be granted. Forty-four of the signatories are Labour lawmakers, representing around a tenth of Labour’s 407 members of Parliament. Although statistically small, more than a dozen backbenchers usually loyal to the government have signed the motion. Regardless of the number of signatories, the government cannot be forced to hold a vote.