Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Our Iraq allies and spin: past and present, British and otherwise

As Blair announces and Britain prepares a phased pull out from Iraq, I noticed this list of our allies who are still there.

It's a somewhat varied and lengthy group, considering that basically this has been a US effort. And of course the numbers from most of the countries are small.

But I'm surprised that so many are still there at all, although I'm not surprised that that fact has been kept fairly quiet--perhaps, even, at the behest of those countries, who no doubt have a valid fear of retaliation by terrorist groups.

Critics will say the forces involved are mainly symbolic rather than meaningful. But any support has meaning and carries risk, and some of the countries involved are very small themselves. Note the strong participation of "new" Europe--the eastern, previously Russian satellite, part:

• South Korea – 2,300 troops in northern city of Irbil; plans to bring home 1,100 troops this spring and parliament has called for a complete withdrawal by the end of the year

• Australia – 1,400 troops; Prime Minister John Howard Wednesday called Britain's move “good sense” but reject calls to follow suit

• Poland – 900 non-combat troops, mission extended to end of this year

• Romania – 865 troops, with most serving in the south under British command 460-member contingent from southern Iraq by August and transfer security responsibilities to Iraqi forces.

• Denmark – The country's 460-member contingent will be pulled by August, with security responsibilities transferred to Iraqi forces. During the conflict, six Danish soldiers have been killed in Iraq

• El Salvador – 380 troops doing peacekeeping work in Hillah; no plans for withdrawal

• Georgia – 850 troops serving under U.S. command in Baqouba; no withdrawal plans

• Azerbaijan – 150 troops, mostly sentries on patrol near Hadid

• Bulgaria – 150 troops, including a large number of non-troops guarding a refugee camp north of Baghdad • Latvia – about 136 troops serving under Polish command

• Albania – 126 troops, mostly doing non-combat duty near airport Mosul • Czech Republic – 100 troops

• Mongolia – 100 troops, no withdrawal plans

• Lithuania – 50 troops as part of Danish battalion near Basra; a spokeswoman for the Baltic nation said Wednesday the country is “seriously considering” not replacing the troops with the mission ends this summer, marking the first time the staunch U.S. ally has indicated it would reduce its Iraq commitment

• Armenia – 46 troops, mission extended to the end of 2007

• Bosnia and Herzegovina – 37 troops

• Estonia – 34 troops serving under U.S. command near Baghdad

• Macedonia – 33 troops in Taji, north of Baghdad

• Kazakhstan – 29 troops, mostly military engineers

• Moldova – 11 bomb-defusing experts returned home in December; parliament has yet to decide on a new mission

• Fiji – The South Pacific nation contributed 150 troops, but the contingent was deployed as part of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq

Of course, the US is the main act in Iraq. But Britain has been an ally right along--although the majority of the people there were always against British participation (as best I can recall); and, if not, they certainly are now.

So the British withdrawal is no mystery; it's been an unpopular war there, and Blair is mindful of his party's future. But the removal of these forces has been telegraphed for ages; no mystery there, as well. If you Google some phrase like "Blair forces leave Iraq" you'll find articles going back to 2006 and even 2005 discussing Blair's plans in that direction (this, for example).

The usual suspects claim the usual intrigue around the move, as described in this CNN article. Blair's statement that the withdrawal represents success in Basra (the area in which the British were always concentrated), and Bush's seconding of that motion, are questioned, especially since the surge is on. And everyone is using the move's announcement to score predictable political points.

In one way the timing does seem odd; why leave now, when more troops are supposed to be needed? On the other hand it's not so odd at all: the area is relatively calm at the moment, and Blair's hand has been virtually forced, in the political sense--he's been stalling on this move for years, and it's hard to imagine how he can stall much longer and still preserve any vitality for his party in the next elections.

Australian Prime Minister Howard is singing a different song. He's adamant about the fact the the Aussies are staying for now. Note, by the way, the subtly snarky tone of the linked article from the Sydney Morning Herald, a type of reporting that almost seamlessly merges editorializing with straight news in a way that's become so familiar as to be the rule rather than the exception (thanks, Walter Cronkite!).

In the article, Howard's announcement that Britain's pullout represents success in Basra is immediately characterized as "play[ing] down the importance" of Blair's announcement, and putting "a positive spin" on Blair's move. And this sort of editorializing occurs in the first two sentences of the story, rather than later on in the article, or even (gasp!!) being saved for an opinion piece.

The Sydney Herald piece does indeed contain some straight reporting and useful information, including quotes from Howard and other Australian officials on their opinions of what's involved. But this comes much later, in the second half of the piece (when most people have probably stopped reading, a fact of which the editors are no doubt fully aware). And it also comes after these opinions have been effectively discredited by the earlier parts of the article; whatever Howard and company may say, the Sydney's editors know it's mere spin--and they're not the least bit shy or retiring about telling us so, right up front.

This, by the way, has nothing to do with whether those editors are correct or not. Whether they are or aren't, I want my news straight, and any interpretation and opinion on another page--or at least in another article clearly labeled opinion, thank you very much. But you can't always get what you want, can you?

Howard is quoted in the article as saying, "A reduction has been in the wind (a while), and the reason I understand Mr Blair will give is that conditions have stabilised in Basra." That is certainly undisputed, as I pointed out.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson adds that there's no discrepancy between the British pullout and the surge plans by the US:

"People ought to remember that 60 per cent of the violence comes from Baghdad and al-Anbar province, where al-Qaeda is particularly active," he told ABC Radio. "The rest of Iraq is quite different".

Undoubtedly true. But, with the surge so clearly telegraphed, and many of the terrorists and insurgents fleeing, aren't more troops needed in Basra, not less? So isn't the timing of the pullout a problem?

To know whether it's likely to be, it would help to know where those fleeing insurgents might have been going. Well, we know that al Sadr is likely to be whooping it up right now with his fun buddies in Iran.

But where are the others? To try to answer the question, I did a bit of research, and all I've come up with so far is this and a few other articles like it, which indicate that the fleeing insurgents seem to have gone to an area north of Baghdad and not all that far away from it. Certainly not to Basra.

Ah, here's a bit of news on the subject, embedded as a few words in an AP article found in the Guardian:

Analysts say there is little point in boosting forces in largely Shiite southern Iraq, where most non-U.S. coalition troops are concentrated.

Okay; I assume that the nameless "analysts" aren't of the Freudian type; they're experts on the situation in Iraq, supposedly. I'd love to hear a bit more about that, and about who they might be, but we don't. What we do hear is AP writer David Stringer immediately following it up with this speculation of his own (at least, apparently his own; there's no attribution for the statement):

Yet as more countries draw down or pull out, it could create a security vacuum if radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirs up trouble.

Interestingly enough, in the very first article I linked in this post (here, from NPR), which features that same AP article, there was another paragraph directly following the above quote about a security vacuum (this extra paragraph was omitted in the Guardian version):

A British withdrawal is not likely to have much effect on the stepped-up U.S. operation in Baghdad or the war against the Sunni-led insurgency focusing on Anbar province west of the Iraqi capital.

So, which is it? Will the British pullout matter, or not? Is it naivete to actually take what Blair says at face value: that the mission is pretty much accomplished in Basra, and that this doesn't represent a huge and terrible break with Washington and with Bush? Well, it's hard to know; but experts seem to believe the British withdrawal and the surge are not contradictory at all.

Wouldn't it be nice if all speculation by journalists would remain where it belongs, in a column or op-ed piece? Or, of course, they're welcome to start their own blogs and spout off like me--but then they'd be letting their biases out into the clear light of day, which could only be a good thing. Ah well, you can say I'm a dreamer.

[NOTE: Apologies for all the song lyric links in this post; my only excuse is I've still got golden oldies on the brain.]

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