Beginning of the end
If you're hoping to hear Tony Blair announce the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq you're in for a disappointment. There will be no date for the last British soldier to leave Iraq. There will, instead, be a confirmation of the defence secretary's cautious prediction in a speech made last November that "by the end of next year I expect numbers of British forces to be significantly lower by a matter of thousands".
In that speech, Des Browne said that reducing the size of the British contingent in Iraq did not mean that Britain was withdrawing, and said that there was no timetable for a full pull out. "We need to be clear: the handover does not mean withdrawal". I expect the prime minister to echo that today.
The real story here is that this is a slower withdrawal than many in the British army had hoped for. You will recall the comments of Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the general staff, who told the Daily Mail that the presence of UK forces “exacerbates the security situation” in parts of Iraq and makes our troops a target. You may also recall a Daily Telegraph story predicting a halving of British forces by the summer - not by the end of the year as now looks likely. They quoted an unnamed general. It is rumoured to have been Major General Richard Shirreff who was the British commander of forces in the south of Iraq.
It would be intriguing to know what pressure the Americans have put on the Brits regarding the speed of withdrawal. The comments of former presidential candidate John Kerry show how awkward the apparent difference in their approaches is politically however many times the governments in London and Washington proclaim - not unfairly - that the situations in the north and south of Iraq are different.
Today's announcement is however driven, in part, by politics. It reflects a desire to be seen to be withdrawing before commemorations of the fourth anniversary of the start of the war, before the local elections and before Tony Blair bows from the stage. It will not mark the end of Britain's involvement in Iraq but will mark the beginning of a long process leading to that end.