THE justification for the British government's decision to reduce the size of its armed forces' presence in Iraq must be that Iraq is, in effect, two countries: the southern part centred in Basra where British forces are based, and the rest of the country, including Baghdad, where the United States is the occupier.
What Tony Blair said yesterday was that the UK part of Iraq is relatively quiet and if it stays that way the 7'000 British troops will be progressively withdrawn through this and next year. At the very same moment, however, President Bush is reinforcing the US presence in Baghdad by 21'000 servicemen and women and it is far from a done deal that this surge' will bring the horrific sectarian killing and virtual civil war to an end.
The question at the forefront of White House thinking about Iraq must now be whether the militants making trouble in Baghdad will extend their activities to the south of the country as British forces withdraw. President Bush generously said yesterday that the UK cutbacks were a sign of success in Iraq but it must have cost him a considerable effort to react in that way.
For the British forces engaged in Iraq and their families Mr Blair's statement will be welcome.
But the suspicion must exist that the reasons behind its timing are mainly political, both personal and party. Britain and the United States went into Iraq together; Britain is leaving alone.