London: Britain’s press on 22 February expressed relief that the country’s soldiers would start returning home from Iraq, but said the move would tarnish the legacy of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
On Wednesday, Blair said the British force in southern Iraq would drop from 7,100 to 5,500 in coming months and could fall below 5,000 this year, contrasted with a “surge” of 21,500 extra troops from the US.
The Daily Telegraph, a right-of-centre paper, began its editorial by saying that the “first reaction to yesterday’s announcement of British troop withdrawals from Iraq must be one of relief.”
But the paper noted that “it should not be forgotten that neither the prime minister, nor (finance minister) Gordon Brown, nor (leader of the opposition) David Cameron got further than the air base outside” the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
Basra’s city centre “was simply deemed too dangerous”.
“That is not an atmosphere in which long-term reconstruction can take place.”
“Relief that the boys are coming home is tempered both by fear and by the horribly uncertain future still facing the south.”
The Daily Mail, also right-of-centre and no fan of Blair, was downcast on the prime minister, describing Wednesday’s announcement as “a defeat for Tony Blair”.
“For a prime minister who took his country to war on a lie and who shares the responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis,” the paper’s editorial read.
“It will be a miracle if the situation in that blighted country doesn’t deteriorate still further. That will be Tony Blair’s true legacy.”
Left-wing daily The Independent was also unimpressed by Blair’s announcement, commenting that Blair’s “misadventure in Iraq will go down in history as the fatal flaw of a promising prime minister”.
“And if even the partial reduction in British troops results in a quagmire, a bloodbath, or both, to the shame of an ill-judged invasion will be added the irresponsibility of a withdrawal that was announced for reasons that were predominantly selfish, cynical and short term,” the paper said.
On the subject of Blair’s legacy, the Financial Times said in its editorial that the prime minister could only save it by taking “a cold look at the destructive policies in the Middle East of his friend George W. Bush”.
The business daily recommended that Blair should attempt to better mediate discussions to reach an agreement between Israel and Palestine, and to improve relations between Iran and the West.
The Guardian, traditionally supportive of Blair’s governing Labour Party, began its editorial declaring: “Tony Blair came to the Commons yesterday to admit defeat.”
According to the paper, while Britain was “right to withdraw” Blair was “able to declare the mission fulfilled only by constantly redefining and reducing it.”
“Britain’s soldiers will come home, but the Iraqis will have to stay.
“Britain and America began by offering them liberation. The best that can be done for them now is to find a little extra time, but even that will be limited.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror — another left-of-centre newspaper — lamented what it thought was a slow pace of British troops returning home, commenting in its editorial that Blair “owes it to British soldiers and their families to close this tragic political chapter before he slips into his own retirement.”
Blair has said he will step down by September, and Brown is the hot favourite to replace him.
The Times said: “Britain should not be rushing to leave southern Iraq on an artificial timetable.”
It said that Blair’s statement “may be the beginning of the end for Britain’s role in Iraq. The end itself will not come for some time yet.”