February 23, 2007 -- THERE are two ways to see Britain and Denmark's decision to set a time table for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
Those who are convinced that liberating Iraq was a mistake will see the move as an admission of failure. They can cite British Prime Minister Tony Blair's words at a summit of the "coalition of the willing" in Azores in March 2003, 48 hours before the start of the war.
Back then, Blair declared the war's aim to be the creation in Iraq of "a stable, law-abiding state within its present borders, cooperating with the international community, no longer posing a threat to its neighbors, abiding by all its international obligations and providing effective representative government to its people." Clearly, while some of those goals have been achieved, at least partially, others have not.
The British and Danish decisions accelerate the trend that began three years ago, when Spain withdrew from Iraq in the wake of the terrorist attack on Madrid. Since then, a dozen others have called it quits, including such staunch U.S. allies as Italy, Poland, Japan and South Korea.
However, it is also possible to see the withdrawal decisions as a sign that the new Iraq, despite its obvious difficulties, may be ready to contemplate life after the Coalition. After all, no one expected the Coalition to stay forever. The only question that matters is whether the announced pullouts come at the right time.
Iraq's leaders, starting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, insist that they were consulted about the British and Danish decisions and welcome it. Indeed, the Iraqis claim that the British had agreed to hand over control of all four provinces of the "deep south" by last December - but, in the event, only transferred two (Maysan and Muthanna). But now the other two (Basra and Dhi-Qar) are expected to be shifted to exclusive Iraqi control before next Christmas.
One reason that encouraged Britain to announce a withdrawal was the robust performance of Iraq's new security forces in last September's "Operation Sinbad" against death squads and infiltrated police units in the "deep south."
THESE four provinces, predominantly Shiite, have a total population of 5 million but account for more than 90 percent of Iraq's oil revenues. The area holds more than 70 percent of Iraq's known oil reserves. Whoever controls the region would control Iraq's future as a unitary state.
Right now, the central government's control is more nominal than real. In all four provinces, rival Shiite parties (each with its armed militia), dominate. After decades of rule by a highly centralized government, the four provinces now feel they are in charge of their destiny. The feeling excites some but frightens others.
The absence of a despotic regime to set the agenda for everything has allowed the emergence of civil society, something that Saddam Hussein had systematically destroyed. Many in the area like their new "devolved" status so much that they have started dreaming of a federal system or even an independent, oil-rich mini-state for themselves.
But devolution has also allowed criminal gangs, sectarian death-squads and murderous religious zealots to come out of the woodwork to make life difficult for average citizens.
The British (like the Americans elsewhere in Iraq) performed a vital function: They provided a lubricant for inter-Iraqi disputes. Factions could often reach a compromise without losing face simply by presenting it as the result of arbitration by the Brits, known locally as "Abu Naji" (Father of Salvation).
With the Brits scripting themselves out over the next two years, the rival factions may revert to the traditional method of conflict resolution - violence. That, in turn, could lead to an inter-Shiite civil war, with the mullahs of Tehran fanning the fires.
Some may see the pullout timetable as notice that they have a specific period in which to prepare for a power grab. This is precisely how the various strands of the so-called Sadrist movement, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, see the situation.
Having failed to gain control through municipal and general elections in the past three years, the Sadrists have tried to achieve their goal through intimidation and terror. But the imposition last May of martial law in Basra, the region's metropolis of 1.4 million, has helped curb the Sadrists and other violent groups.
Sadr has withdrawn to Iran, apparently to wait until the British, and maybe even the Americans, leave Iraq. He'd then be able to return to Iraq at the head of a new "volunteer army" that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard is raising for him in Iran. That, in turn, could plunge the "deep south," now relatively calm, into a bloody guerrilla war.
BRITAIN has a long history of success in coping with adversaries in the con text of low-intensity wars. In Malaya and Cyprus, to cite just two examples, it helped defeat very determined foes.
The Brits' success was due to two facts. First, they convinced their foes that Britain would remain committed "until the job was done." Second, they chose a local side that they could support without violating British values.
But in Iraq, the British have done neither of those things. Fixing a timetable for withdrawal is a signal that Britain is more concerned about domestic political considerations than the broader geopolitical stakes in Iraq.
As for choosing the right local side, the British could never make up their mind. In 2003, they had a chance to back a burgeoning coalition of secular forces, especially in Basra, but failed to do so. After that, they backed different horses, including some nasty ones.
The Brits did much good in the "deep south" by protecting the oilfields and rebuilding much infrastructure. The region is experiencing an economic boom and has been more peaceful than Baghdad and the four mainly Sunni provinces.
Yet the "deep south" is certainly far from safe and secure. And the British and Danish decisions are bound to increase pressure on President Bush to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Ideally, Britain should have remained strongly present, although not necessarily in policing operations, until after the next Iraqi general election in January 2009. Now that it has decided to withdraw completely a few weeks before that election, the best that the Iraqis can do is to remember the Arabic proverb: There is always some good in what happens.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe.