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Britain's Walking Iraq Casualty

This story was written by CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer in London.



Four years into the war, British military bases are still under daily mortar attack in southern Iraq – and the British prime minister is under heavy fire at home.

In an interview aired last week on Britain's Sky News, Tony Blair was asked whether, in the face of daily tragedy in Iraq, he believed he had made a mistake in taking Britain to war.

Absolutely not, the Prime Minister replied.

"I have on every occasion expressed my sadness and sorrow. I understand for these families (of British servicemen and women) it is a time of immense grief... but I can't say what I don't believe. I don't believe it was the wrong thing to get rid of Saddam."

But right from the beginning, millions of Britons strongly disagreed with their Prime Minister.

On February 15, 2003 hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of London in the largest peace-time demonstration in British history, but it's taken four years for that groundswell of protest to affect policy.

Over the past few months, Britain's withdrawal plans have started firming up.

The prime minister's unwavering defense of the invasion and occupation is not shared by the majority of British members of parliament.

Of the roughly 7,000 British troops left in Iraq, 1,600 will come home before the summer.

That will leave just 5,500 behind in a military sector now largely under Iraqi command.

Colonel Tim Collins commanded British troops in Iraq in 2002.

"The British government is more concerned with its domestic issues now than it is about this military campaign — which frankly hasn't gone very well. As a result, the whole thing is in complete disarray."

Television viewers watching Tony Blair being interviewed last week were asked: "Was it right to invade Iraq?"

A whopping 82 percent voted "no".

The public is not only alarmed by the casualties in Iraq, but infuriated by the widely-held belief that British soldiers are dying because Tony Blair capitulated to President Bush in joining an illegal invasion, followed by a catastrophically poor occupation.

That opinion was reinforced again last week by the verdict of a coroner's inquest into the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull, killed by American bombs when U.S. pilots mistakenly attacked a British convoy in Iraq.

The Pentagon had refused to provide cockpit video that would help explain how the accident had happened, and who was responsible. The video was nevertheless leaked to the coroner. It showed the pilots had disobeyed basic orders during their bombing mission, leading the coroner to return a verdict of unlawful death.

The whole affair has reinforced the popular view that Britain continues to be America's patsy in Iraq.

Quite apart from the military casualties of this war — at least 134 British soldiers have been killed and 1,000 wounded — there has been one outstanding political one: Prime Minister Tony Blair.

One of his biographers, the political correspondent John Rentoul, says the Prime Minister is unlikely to express publicly any frustration he feels.

"I suspect in private he must resent the way the Americans have handled this, as there's a prevailing opinion that it could have been done a lot better. But he's not going to criticize George Bush in public because that's just not the way he does things. He thinks that that would look cowardly and opportunistic.

"However, there is no question that Iraq has ended his period as prime minister. In effect, he's been living on borrowed time since 2003," Rentoul said.

Tony Blair has already said he will give up the prime minister's office sometime this summer.

He will do it knowing that no matter what he has achieved in modernizing Britain, and regardless of steering the country through an unprecedented period of prosperity — Iraq will be the headline of his political epitaph.



Update: The number of British casualties cited in this story was updated to 134 dead, not 166 as first reported.
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