Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Maliki to Blair: get out

Tony Blair went to Baghdad yesterday to greet the new Iraqi Prime Minister - and was surprised when they told him they expected US and British forces to hand over control of 16 of Iraq's 18 provinces by the end of the year:

The announcement was news to Mr Blair and his team. Mr Maliki said there was an agreement with the British: but British officials said there was no agreement. And he said the withdrawals would be in June: officials say it will be July.

Mr Blair was more vague than the Iraqi prime minister. He insisted that there was no timetable and that the handover to Iraqi forces would depend on the prevailing conditions.

Despite the disagreements on details, one thing is clear: the new Iraqi government wants the "coalition of the willing" gone, and as quickly as possible.

This is good news. Not just because the troops will be leaving (they've been a magnet for violence since shortly after their arrival) - but because it is being led by the Iraqis rather than their occupiers. They're taking charge of their country in the most significant way possible: by saying that it is theirs, and they will police it themselves. Removing the taint of foreign backing should also add significantly to the perceived legitimacy of the new government.

This is also what Bush has been hoping for - a chance to withdraw troops before the November Mid-terms - but I don't think that should stop us from celebrating this moment.