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Did Petraeus Greenlight UK Withdrawal?
UK, US Media Coverage Paint Different Portraits of London Meetings
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 09/19/2007 11:51 AM ET
LONDON - SEPTEMBER 18: General David Petraeus, commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, attends a news conference for the British media on September 18, 2007 in London, England.
Cate Gillon/AFP/Getty
LONDON - SEPTEMBER 18: General David Petraeus, commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, attends a news conference for the British media on September 18, 2007 in London, England.

Media coverage of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker's visit to London on Tuesday suggests British and American journalists watched separate press conferences, and wrote their stories with a different set of biases and expectations.

The Associated Press led with Petraeus's warning about premature withdrawal causing instability in southern Iraq, the Post focused on the angle of how US officials were reportedly telling the UK it should be more aggressive, discussing the rumored deal between the Brits and the Shi'ite militias, while the NYT stressed the visit was intended to mend any differences between the two allies.

While each mentioned the pressure UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is under to pull out troops, each also seemed to assume Petraeus intended to lobby the Brits to stay by communicating a dire prediction about the instability that would befall the south if they withdrew.

The New York Times reports that General Petraeus implied the meetings with British defense officials had included an agreement to defer decisions on any further troop withdrawals for several months, while new assessments were made of the stability in southern Iraq. “My sense of this is that there’s a wait-and-see attitude,” NYT quotes Petraeus as saying.

Headlines in the UK press, however, make one wonder where the Americans were when the Brits were getting their stories, or if wishful thinking is guiding their editorial judgment.

"Petraeus: British troops 'close to leaving Iraq,'" the Telegraph trumpets, "British exit from Basra has led to drop in violence, says General David Petraeus," according to the Times, and the Guardian says "US agrees further British withdrawal from Iraq."

The Telegraph reports Petraeus said he was "optimistic" about the prospects for Basra, and that British troops could be only weeks away from handing over responsibility for security in Basra province to Iraqi forces, moving into an overwatch role, focusing on training and supporting Iraqi operations.

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Gen Petraeus said this could happen “later this fall or in the winter”.

The piece never quotes Petraeus saying British troops are "close to leaving Iraq," and that point seems to be driven by the writer's assumption that UK will begin to withdraw once they move into an overwatch position.

The Guardian writes that Britain is poised to announce significant cuts in the number of troops in southern Iraq following an upbeat assessment Tuesday, and that the announcement could be made as early as October 8 when Gordon Brown is due to make a statement to Parliament.

Again, contrary to the article's headline, it doesn't seem Petraeus "agreed" to further British withdrawal from Iraq, but that the writers drew the conclusion based on their own optimistic perception of what the general meant when he said Basra could be ready for transfer of control by fall or winter.

The Times of London cites Petraeus's comment that the Basra transfer could happen in the coming months, but correctly assesses that the general would not be drawn into discussions on troops withdrawals. By avoiding the pitfalls of that debate, the Times story develops the most intriguing and important angle to the story.

Despite expectations that British pullback from Basra would lead to a spike in violence, Petraeus said that recent weeks had actually witnessed a decline. "There has been a substantial reduction over the past month and a half in the number of violent attacks . Political deals appear to have been established," he said.

With that kind of assessment from the top general in Iraq, it's clear why journalists or British officials would automatically conclude that further withdrawals would be, and should be, imminent.

But what the British side did not want to hear, the American media stressed: that Petraeus was visiting to discuss what future tasks British troops might perform in the future.

A small contingent of British troops were recently sent to patrol the Iranian border, and US leaders would clearly prefer an enduring UK presence to shore up border security, rather than a withdrawal of troops.

Asked by The Times whether the interference of the Iranians in the south was the key reason for maintaining a substantial British force there, Petraeus said he would not put it at the top of his list, but that it was one of several factors that would dictate when conditions were right for any reduction of forces.

Contrary to Petraeus's expectations that the British would defer any decision on troop withdrawals for several months, the UK Ministry of Defence announced plans for a small reduction on Wednesday.

"We're looking to reduce numbers in Basra by 500 by November," a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday, saying the reduction would take place as part of the regular rotation of troops.

The Ministry of Defence has said any further drawdown or withdrawal beyond the 500 to be pulled out by November will be "conditions-based", meaning that if it is deemed safe to do so and is coordinated with the U.S. command, it can happen.

"At some point in the new year, we'll have to look at what the situation on the ground is and decide, in consultation, where we go from there," the spokesman said.

The British military has been pushing hard for a withdrawal, while Gordon Brown has been more cautious about the next step. If the Ministry of Defence is saying that the conditions for withdrawal will be re-assessed after the first of the year, it seems to imply that military leaders have been temporarily appeased, and that it may be a number of months before the UK's longer-term plans for its presence in Iraq are apparent.

Despite the excitement of the British media, it is clear that Gen. Petraeus would not have given a green light to a withdrawal of UK troops--not while he still has work they could be doing for him.


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