There are two ways to see Britain and Denmark's decision to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
Those convinced that liberating Iraq was a mistake would see the move as an admission of failure. They would recall British Prime Minister Tony Blair's words at a summit of the "coalition of the willing" in Azores in March 2003:
Blair declared the aim of the war 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."
It is clear that, while some of those goals have been achieved at least partially, others have not. The British and Danish decisions accelerate a trend, began three years ago, when Spain withdrew from "the coalition of he willing" in the wake of the terrorist attack on Madrid. Since then, a dozen other nations have called it quits in Iraq, including Italy, Poland, Japan, and South Korea.
The British and Danish decisions are bound to increase pressure on President George W. Bush to set a timetable for withdrawing US troops.
However, it is also possible to see the British and Danish decisions as a sign that new Iraq, despite its obvious difficulties, may be ready to contemplate life after the coalition. After all, no one expected, and few Iraqis wanted, the coalition to stay forever. The only question that matters is whether the announced withdrawal comes at the right time.
The Iraqi leaders say they were consulted, and welcome, the British and Danish decisions.
Although this may be an attempt at putting a positive spin on events, the Iraqi leaders claim that they had already agreed with the UK to assume control of all four provinces of the so-called "deep south" by last December.
In the event, however, only two provinces, Maysan and Muthanna, were handed over. The other two, Basra and Dhi-Qar, are now expected to be transferred to 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 four provinces.
The four predominantly Shiite provinces have a total population of five million but account for more than 90 percent of Iraq's oil revenues. More than 70 percent of Iraq's known oil reserves are located in the "deep south", including the world's largest oilfields of Majnun and Rumailah.
Whoever controls the region would control the future of Iraq as a unitary state. Right now the Iraqi central government's control is more nominal than real. In all four provinces, rival Shiite parties, each with its armed militia, dominate the scene, either alone or in coalition.
After decades of rule by a highly centralized government, the four provinces now feel they are in charge of their destiny. Many in the "deep south" like their new devolved status so much that they have started dreaming of a federal system or even an independent oil-rich ministate for themselves. However, devolution has also allowed criminal gangs, sectarian death squads, and murderous religious zealots to come out of the woodworks to make life difficult for average citizens.
In the "deep south", the British, like the Americans in other parts of Iraq, performed a vital function: They provided a lubricant for inter-Iraqi disputes. In many cases, factions could reach a compromise without losing face simply because they could present 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, rival Shiite factions might revert to the traditional method of conflict resolution through violence. That, in turn, could lead to an inter-Shiite civil war with the mullahs of Tehran fanning the fires. All those who wish new Iraq to fail, may see the fixing of a timetable for withdrawal as a signal that they have a specific period in which to prepare for a power garb. This is precisely how the various strands of the so-called Sadrist movement, led by Moqtada Sadr, see the situation in the "deep south." The imposition of martial law in Basra, the region's metropolis of 1.4 million, last May has helped curb the Sadrists and other violent groups.
Sadr has withdrawn to Iran, apparently to wait until the British, and may be even the Americans, leave Iraq. He would then return at the head of a new "volunteer army" that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard is raising for him in Iran. That could plunge the "deep south", now relatively calm, into a bloody guerrilla war.
The British success against adversaries in low-intensity wars in Malaya and Cyprus was due to two facts. First, they convinced their foes that Britain would remain committed "until the job was done." Secondly, they chose a local side that they could support without betraying British values.
In the Iraqi "deep south", 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 in many cases, rebuilding the infrastructure. The region is experiencing an economic boom and has been more peaceful than Baghdad and the four mainly Sunni provinces. And, yet, the "deep south" is certainly far from safe and secure. Ideally, Britain should have retained a strong presence, although not necessarily in policing operations, until after the next Iraqi general election in January 2009. Now that it has decided to be out of Iraq a few weeks before that election, the best that Iraqis can do is to remember the Arabic proverb: There is always some good in what happens!