Blair supports US decision to expand force in Iraq

However, British PM stresses that Britain has no need to deploy additional forces.

blair 88 (photo credit: )
blair 88
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday he supported a US decision to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, but stressed Britain had no need to deploy additional forces. Blair, speaking in an interview with a local television station in southwestern England, said the United States and Britain remained in step on their policy over Iraq. Bush's decision and an ongoing joint Iraqi-British operation to tackle insurgents in the southern city of Basra shared an aim of transferring security duties to local forces, he said. "In the end that's the purpose in Baghdad and Basra, to put the Iraqis in control," Blair told Westcountry television, adding that he believed Bush's strategy was sensible. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett had earlier seemingly distanced the British government from US policy. "It has always been the case that we will make our own judgments and our own decisions depending on that series and sequence of events," she told reporters at Downing Street. Blair, however, rejected any suggestion of a policy rift. "It is really important that we don't either give that impression or have that misunderstanding," he said. "The conditions in Baghdad are very different from those in Basra," Blair said. "In Basra we don't have the same threat from al-Qaida, we don't have the same sectarian violence to anything like the same degree, and we don't have the same insurgency." Beckett said Britain was continuing to work "progressively" toward transferring security responsibility to authorities in Basra, southern Iraq, where it has about 7,000 troops. Iraq was discussed at a meeting of the Cabinet on Thursday morning, Blair's official spokesman said at a news briefing. When asked if Blair approved of the increase in troop levels, his spokesman said Britain and the U.S are in "strategic symmetry." "What the prime minister fully supports is the efforts of the US ... the efforts of the Iraqi government, and our own efforts to create the space and time to allow the Iraqi government to establish its authority and make Iraq a more prosperous country," he said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. Blair has been Bush's key ally in Iraq, but the policy has caused friction at home. On Thursday, former foreign secretary Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, announced that there will be a parliamentary debate on Iraq on Jan. 24. The debate will be an opportunity to air opinions but will not produce a binding vote. The spokesman said that plans to draw down British troops in Iraq continue, but that eventual withdrawal depends on the situation on the ground in Basra. Defense Secretary Des Browne has said thousands of British soldiers will be pulled from Iraq when the conditions are met. No date has been specified for the handover of Basra, but Browne has said he hoped it would be in the first half of the year. The spokesman said the situation would be evaluated after a major operation in the city concludes, likely at the end of February. Britain intends to hand over control of Maysan province, in the country's southeast, sometime this month. A defense ministry spokeswoman said that plan is still in effect, but is dependent on Iraqi authorities and the security situation. On Thursday, The Daily Telegraph newspaper said 3,000 soldiers will be withdrawn from the region in May, which meshes with previous strategy announcements made by British government officials.