WASHINGTON – The Bush administration said Wednesday that Britain's decision to withdraw 1,600 troops from Iraq is a positive sign that fits with the overall strategy for stabilizing the country.
Statements from the White House press secretary, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — all traveling — attempted to put a good face on the decision announced in London by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Increasingly our role will be support and training, and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly," said Blair, who discussed the move with President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Britain intends to drop its force in Iraq — mostly in the southern part of the country — below 5,000 by late summer, and keep British troops in Iraq until at least 2008 for missions to secure the Iraq-Iran border and maintain supply routes in central Iraq, Blair told the House of Commons.
"The British have done what is really the plan for the country as a whole, which is to transfer security responsibility to the Iraqis as the situation permits," Rice said at a press conference in Berlin, where she was in meetings on the Mideast peace process. "The coalition remains intact and, in fact, the British still have thousands of troops deployed in Iraq."
Cheney called it good news.
"I look at it and see it is actually an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," Cheney told ABC News while in Tokyo.
"In fact, I talked to a friend just the other day who had driven to Baghdad down to Basra, seven hours, found the situation dramatically improved from a year or so ago, sort of validated the British view they had made progress in southern Iraq and that they can therefore reduce their force levels," he added.
Cheney also harshly criticized the approach on Iraq by Democratic leaders in Congress. In the House, Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who chairs a subcommittee that oversees defense spending, have said they will attempt to place restrictions on Bush's request for an additional $93 billion for the Iraq war to make it difficult or impossible to deploy all 21,500 extra troops to the war.
"I think if we were to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha are suggesting, all we will do is validate the Al Qaeda strategy," the vice president said in the interview.
Murtha has described a series of provisions, such as requiring the Pentagon to meet certain standards for training and equipping the troops and for making sure they have enough time at home between deployments. Democrats say the provisions would protect the troops, but Republicans argue the effect would be to deny troops what they need to do their job.
Presidential spokesman Tony Snow, on a trip with Bush to Tennessee, said Britain's decision was not made on a timeline of the sort the president has rejected for American troops. "What you had is progress first, and then the removal," Snow said.
"The president's made clear all along, we want to move as rapidly as we can to build capability on the part of the Iraqis so they can in fact assume, first, primary responsibility and then eventually sole responsibility," he said.
And Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said there was no thought that the British was abandoning the United States when it is struggling to send thousands more troops into Iraq. The "British have been steadfast allies in Iraq and they will continue to be," he said.