By Liam Carroll
The number of British troops in Iraq has come down from 9,000, to just 5,500 in the Basra province. Their tasks include training Iraqi forces, securing the Iraq/Iran border, securing supply routes, conducting operations against extremist groups, and supporting the Iraqi army when requested. All this while the British army is stretched to the limit in Afghanistan and peacekeeping operations elsewhere.
But could a timetable or immediate withdrawal of British troops be dangerous for Britain and for Iraq?
The Iraq Commission is an independent, cross-party body that has produced recommendations on the future of Britain's role in Iraq and ways to stabilise the region. The Commission was brought together by the Foreign Policy Centre. Its final report was featured on Channel 4 on July 14. Its hearings and its full final report can be heard and read on the Channel 4 website.
Withdrawals depend on the prevailing security situation, and the key risk is that insurgents could intensify attacks on UK troops, and hasten, delay or disrupt their departure when UK withdrawal is signaled.
The report says the UK should run down security operations and focus on completing the training of the Iraqi forces to lower this risk. Once they demonstrate competence, security responsibility should be handed over to them. UK forces should act only in self defence or on request of Iraqi authorities. Forces involved only in training then could be withdrawn as it is completed.
The UK has a more important role, in the UN Security Council and the EU. We have diplomatic relations with all Iraq's neighbours, a historical involvement with the region and expertise through the Northern Ireland peace process. The report suggests that the UK could use its influence to form a Contact Group under the UN, to manage peace negotiations with Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the EU and USA. A wider circle must include the Arab League, Gulf Co-operation Council, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, also China, India and Russia.
They should press all Iraqi factions to participate, and confirm that al Q'aida serves no Iraqi interest. The aim should be establishment of a regional organisation of Iraq and its neighbour states, legal commitments to non-interference, economic co-operation and confidence-building, and an international treaty recognising the territorial integrity of Iraq. Participants need to make clear that none, including the US, seek a permanent military presence in Iraq.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown could also seek appointment of a high level UN envoy to ensure Iraqis make rapid political progress on federal-regional relations, fair sharing of oil revenues, disarmament of militias, minority rights and human rights. The envoy would report to the Secretary General, in partnership with the Iraqi government, based on the existing democratic constitution of Iraq.
Will this restore stability to Iraq and the Middle East? As the economy improved in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, unemployment fell, and violence abated. James Wolfensohn (former president of the World Bank) told the Iraq Commission the long term answer to conflict is giving young people of Iraq hope and the opportunity to work.
The UN recognises that the security situation is not uniform across Iraq, and that some areas are much more accessible than others for humanitarian aid. The UK already could sponsor a trade mission to Kurdish provinces of Iraq, now pacified.
The UK should increase funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to address the humanitarian needs of 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, which such countries cannot support. We should also provide more funding to Unicef, who need $42 million to support vulnerable women and children in Iraq, Jordan and Syria, with education, health, water and sanitation. Further, Britain must accept a significant number of refugees from Iraq who face death threats for working for UK forces.
Once order is restored in Iraq, the economic benefits of peace can take root. Progress on national reconciliation, security, health and education systems of the poorest regions may depend on fair distribution of oil revenues - Iraq's primary national resource.
Government should take the commission and its report seriously. It could offer Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Gordon Brown, at least a starting place, for developing a much needed strategy for complete withdrawal from Iraq as Britain moves on from the Blair era.
David Roberts of Norwich United Nations Association (UNA) helped with valuable research for this column.