The administration of US President George W. Bush is becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of an imminent British withdrawal from southern Iraq and would prefer that UK troops remain for another year or two.
British officials believe that Washington will signal its intention to reduce US troop numbers after a much-anticipated report next month by its top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, clearing the way for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to announce a British withdrawal in the UK parliament the following month.
An official said: "We do believe we are nearly there."
It is not known whether Bush expressed concern about the withdrawal of the remaining 5,000 British troops when he met Brown in Washington last week. But sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the administration was worried about the political consequences of losing British troops.
"If the difference is between the British leaving at the end of the year or staying through to next year or the year after, it is a safe assumption that President Bush would prefer them to stay as long as the Americans are there," a source said.
The Bush administration -- focused on the north, west and central Iraq and the "surge" strategy that has seen 30,000 extra US troops deployed -- has until recently ignored the south, content to leave it to the British. Now, however, it is beginning to pay attention to the region amid the realization that what has been portrayed as a success story is turning sour.
The UK government no longer claims Basra is a success but denies it is a failure, with British troops forced to abandon Basra City for the shelter of the airport.
Ken Pollack, a foreign affairs expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, who returned last month from an eight-day visit to Iraq in which he spoke to US officers and officials, predicted that US and Iraqi forces would have to go to the south to fill the vacuum.
He said Bush would prefer the British to stay.
"What Bush needs is for there to be a Union Jack flying somewhere in Iraq so he can trumpet that as full British participation, but that participation has been meaningless for some time," he said.
Pollack, who wrote on his return that there were signs that the surge was working, was dismissive of the British contribution over the past 12 to 18 months.
"I am assuming the British will no longer be there. They are not there now. We have a British battle group holed up in Basra airport. I do not see what good that does except for people flying in and out," he said. "It is the wild, wild west. Basra is out of control."
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