By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website
General Dannatt says he wants to protect soldiers' wellbeing
Comments by the head of the British army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, that his forces are stretched in Afghanistan and cannot deploy any more soldiers will only increase pressure on the British government to hasten its withdrawal from Iraq.
At the same time, the British plan to withdraw to a kind of redoubt at Basra airport is being mocked both by the militant cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia has harried British troops in southern Iraq, and by those US military thinkers who want more commitment in Iraq, not less.
General Dannatt, speaking on a visit to Afghanistan, did not repeat the statement he made in October last year that Britain should "get out [of Iraq] sometime soon", but the thrust of British military thinking is clear enough - the key campaign is now in Afghanistan, and anything that can reduce and even eliminate the British commitment in Iraq can help in that task.
"The army is certainly stretched. And when I say that we
can't deploy any more battle groups at the present moment, that's
because we're trying to get a reasonable balance of life for our
people" he told the BBC.
Britain is now down to about 5,500 troops in Iraq (compared to 7,000 when General Dannatt made his remarks last year), and intends to pull them back to the airport and hand Basra province over to Iraqi control, possibly this autumn.
The policy was defended by a British spokesman in Basra, Major Mike Shearer.
"This is not a new plan at all. It's good for the Iraqis, it's good for us and
we will eventually see here Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems and that has to
be the way ahead," he said.
This move has been derided by Moqtada Sadr, who regards American and British troops (and al-Qaeda fighters) as invaders.
"The British are retreating. They know they will be leaving soon. They have realised this is not a war they should be fighting or one they can win," he told The Independent newspaper.
And in the United States, there are signs of a backlash against the British at a time when the Bush administration is shaping up to continue with its so-called surge of troops into Iraq.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that the senior British officer in Basra, General Jonathan Shaw, got short shrift when he started lecturing American officers on counter-insurgency.
"It's insufferable, for Christ's sake," was the reported reaction of one senior figure closely involved in US military planning.
"He comes on and he lectures everybody in the room about how to do a counter-insurgency. The guys were just rolling their eyeballs. The notorious Northern Ireland came up again."'
In some quarters, the British pullback is seen as unhelpful to the surge. Stephen Biddle, a senior military commentator at the US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the British withdrawal would be "ugly and embarrassing".
Mr Biddle has previously called for a policy of getting even more involved in Iraq or getting out. He wants the US to reduce the training of Iraqi forces, and to support some forces in Iraq's civil conflict and oppose others, instead of trying to hold the ring.
Meanwhile more than 100 leading foreign policy experts in the US have been surveyed about the war in Iraq and other security issues by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine.
A summary of the findings stated: "[The] experts see a world that is growing more dangerous, a national security strategy in disrepair, and a war in Iraq that is alarmingly off course."
More than half say that the surge is "having a negative impact on US national security," according to the summary.
In mid-September, Washington will disclose its next moves, with a report being drawn up on the advice of its commander in Iraq General David Petraeus and its ambassador Ryan Crocker.
However, the indication is that President Bush is not inclined to put the brakes on yet. In a telling phrase in his weekly radio address on 11 August he stated: "The surge is still in its early stages."
The Americans could probably live with a British pullback. They would probably object to a British withdrawal.