Britain's Mail on Sunday (via this incomplete version posted by Drudge), is reporting that the U.K. is planning significant force reductions in Iraq from 8,500 to 3,000 by mid-2006. In fact, that is what is outlined in a memo written by Defense Secretary John Reid, and it has yet to be endorsed by the government or the armed forces.
The story is a calculated leak, clearly by Reid and no doubt with Tony Blair's approval, and is supposedly what is being considered as one possible scenario among others. It could just be an effort to dent any anti-Iraq war backlash following the London bombings. Or it could be a trial balloon to see how the United States reacts.
However, what makes the piece curious is the way the British cutback in troops is sold as the result of an American desire to hightail out of Iraq (Drudge left out the following paragraphs):
The memo leaves little doubt that the British plan to take their lead from the White House, where an increasingly unpopular Mr Bush is under huge pressure from the US public to bring American troops home fast.
The paper says it "sets out what we know of US planning and possible expectations on the UK contribution, and the impact on UK decision making".
It says Mr Bush's allies in the Pentagon and Centcom, or Central Command, are at odds with Army chiefs in Iraq, who fear it is too soon to withdraw in such large numbers.
The document states: "There is a strong US military desire for significant force reductions.
"Emerging US plans assume 14 out of 18 provinces could be handed over to Iraqi control by early 2006, allowing a reduction in [Allied troops] from 176,000 down to 66,000. There is, however, a debate between the Pentagon/Centcom, who favour a relatively bold reduction in force numbers, and the multinational force in Iraq, whose approach is more cautious."
The piece is so full of qualifications (the U.S. armed forces want to withdraw, but commanders in Iraq disagree; the British army is set to be brought home, but commanders in Iraq, and the government, have not approved this) that it's obviously a case of testing the waters. The question is who in London and Washington has cold feet?