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Published: Tuesday, 2/27/2007

Isolated in Iraq

THE British government's announcement that it will withdraw several thousand of its 7,100 troops in Iraq - the same day Denmark declared that it will withdraw its 460 - leaves the United States pretty much on its own.

President George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" in Iraq has always been a pale copy of the 34-nation coalition, including key Arab states, that his father put together to fight Iraq in 1990 after its invasion of Kuwait.

Even as the Iraq war, launched by the incumbent in 2003, has driven away initial members of the coalition, the British, under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair, have held on, staying the course.

But Mr. Blair has now indicated in Parliament that it is time to go home. Apart from the immense unpopularity of the war in the United Kingdom and Mr. Blair's own imminent departure from the prime minister's post - the two moves are clearly linked - the British are now clearly at odds with the Bush administration on the war.

They say that the task set for them - to hold the line until credible Iraqi troops can take their place in their area of responsibility, centered around Basra in the south - has been achieved. And they have concluded that their continued presence in Iraq as part of an occupying army is now part of the problem rather than the solution to persistent insecurity and violence.

This position, and their decision to withdraw forces, sidesteps Mr. Bush's escalation of U.S. forces in Iraq by 21,500, adding to the 138,000 already there. If, for example, the British were willing to move the 1,600 they will initially withdraw from Basra to Baghdad, the focus of augmented U.S. attention, fewer hard-pressed American forces would be required there.

The British intend to withdraw forces starting in six weeks, more in November and most of the rest by the end of 2008, if not sooner. Parallel with the British announcement, Denmark has indicated it will withdraw nearly all of its troops this summer.

Minus the British, the United States will remain virtually alone in Iraq. The British reasoning for leaving is impeccable. From their point of view, this is a clear case of ships leaving a sinking rat.

Particularly given that the Iraqi insurgents' response to the new U.S. concentration on Baghdad has been, first, to hole up in Baghdad and increase their attacks elsewhere in the country, and second, to concentrate on knocking down U.S. helicopters, it is easy to see why the British want out, their task having been in principle completed, rather than join the effort in Baghdad.

On the international political front, Mr. Blair's announcement of the withdrawal, to be followed soon by the timetable for his own departure from active political life, coupled with the U.S. House of Representatives' rejection last week of Mr. Bush's escalation of the war, means that the American President has become even more isolated than he was before in his insistence on continuing the war. Some call it resolve on his part; others call it rank folly.

The British and the Danes are setting a good example for America in withdrawing forces. It is time to wrap up American involvement in this terrible mistake.

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