US DIPLOMATS believed Gordon Brown wanted to pull troops out of Iraq to show the British public he was "the leader who undid Blair's mistake" in going to war.
The assessment appears in a briefing document for Hank Paulson, the US treasury secretary, in advance of his visit to Britain in September 2007.
The briefing was prepared by the US ambassador to the UK at the time, Robert H Tuttle, who reports: "We assess that - ultimately - the Brown government will pull its remaining forces in Iraq by spring, even at the expense of a strain in relations with the United States."
Withdrawing troops suits Brown's political ambitions, said the ambassador. "Domestically, such a move has no downsides for Brown: the Labour Party, never entirely comfortable in supporting Blair on Iraq, will be relieved; the military leadership, which has tended recently to make public its grievances on being stretched too far, will be placated; and the electorate, deeply unhappy over Iraq, will see Brown as the leader who undid Blair's mistake."
Tuttle suggests the actions of the successor to Blair as the Labour prime minister are being dictated by what would play well in an election. "Timing is important: a troop rotation is set to occur in November. A British departure from Basra by Christmas would be an asset in a spring general election."
Tuttle contrasts Brown's attitude to the US with that of his predecessor. "While his Scottish demeanour is certainly not as openly warm as Tony Blair's, Brown and his team have been careful to assure us publicly and privately that our relationship is paramount.
"Brown is driven by a sense of purpose rather than power. His impatience to press forward his own agenda in the absence of a clear timetable on his political future, combined with a more reserved temperament, will likely lead to the occasional tussle between our governments."
More: the Iraq cables
• Wikleaks: US anger at Gordon Brown's Iraq withdrawal
• Wikileaks: Gordon Brown 'wanted to undo Tony Blair's Iraq mistake'
• Basra: timeline of UK military involvement in Iraq
• Iraqi premier feared British withdrawal would cause
• Tories asked to oppose pull-out
• Leader: Historical insight
Another diplomatic cable hints that military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is of less interest to Brown than the arcane detail of international financial regulation.
A report of a meeting between Brown and some visiting US senators discusses both conflicts before addressing the subject of the World Bank. The cable reports: "Suddenly becoming more engaged, the Prime Minister turned to his interest in reform of the international financial institutions…"
Across Whitehall at the Ministry of Defence, the cables paint a picture of Des Browne as a man left defeated and demoralised by a task he came to regard as impossible.
The Kilwinning-born lawyer, who was defence secretary between May 2006 and October 2008, first breaks the news that Britain wants out of Basra in a meeting with US officials in Baghdad in early 2007.
Read the cables online
• PM hopes to complete selection of security ministers soon; deeply concerned about Basrah
• U.N. Undersecretary General Vaness discusses staffing and Basrah
• XXXXXXXXXXX blames UK for security problems
• UK defense secretary says Basrah to transfer by August
• UK relents on Basrah Governor; outlines future troop deployment
• UK defense secretary says HMG will drawdown, and Iran is a menace
• David Cameron tells John McCain Tories won't break with HMG where troops are concerned
• UK reaffirms long-term presence in Iraq; praises PM Maliki's new confidence
• Crocker/Petraeus meetings with UK Defense Secretary and senior military officials, September 18, 2007
• Scenesetter for Secretary Paulson's visit to London September 17-18"Browne explained the entire UK force is no larger than the US Marine Corps and that it is stressed by service in Iraq and Afghanistan," reports the cable. "It can no longer sustain the current tempo.
"Furthermore, (Browne] said, the UK is increasing its force size in Afghanistan because they believe there is a real opportunity to defeat the Taleban and stabilise the south in the next several months."
But beyond these practical considerations there are political reasons too, reports the cable.
"Browne added that the growing dissatisfaction with the war among the British population was also putting pressure on the government to drawdown."
But when he and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Baghdad, talk again four months later it is clear that Britain has had a crisis of confidence about its role in Iraq.
Under the heading "According to Browne: Tale of Woe With Few Glimmers of Hope", a cable from May 2007 reports: "Browne described the Basra situation as depressing and incomprehensible.
"He doubted a continued large UK force presence could change the situation.
"The violence against UK forces and innocent civilians is increasingly 'chilling' and the political system is non- existent.
"He questioned how Basra became one of the most unstable areas of Iraq when it does not suffer from the two major threats to Iraq: al-Qaeda and sectarian divisions.
"He reiterated his argument that Basra's complex political problems could not be resolved militarily, and certainly not by the UK's forces."
In June 2007, Brown replaces Blair in 10 Downing Street. Judging by the cables, this did nothing to lift Browne's mood or give new impetus to the UK's Iraq operation. In September, a high-powered US delegation flew into London, including the US commander of the multi-national force in Iraq, the widely-admired General David Petraeus.
Over a lunch notable for some candid talking, Browne tells Petraeus "the UK is frustrated by the lack of progress in Basra, both politically and economically. This frustration has led the British to question the purpose of maintaining a presence there."
At one point during the lunch, the general asks a straight question. "Petraeus asked Browne why the UK seems to be beating itself up over its performance in Iraq."
Browne responds by blaming the British media, "which has appallingly low standards", and whose "constant barrage of criticism and misinformation is wearing officials down".
The general makes a direct appeal to Browne for the British to stay put. "The UK needs to continue to base its … operations in Basra," Petraeus said to Browne.Noting the possibility that the UK might consider moving to Talil Air Base in DhiQar, Petraeus stressed that Basra itself is critically important; it is the second largest city in Iraq; and 90 per cent of Iraq's oil wealth flows through it.
"With no sectarian conflict or al-Qaeda presence, Basra represents an opportunity for (Iraqi prime minister] Maliki to demonstrate how Iraqi central government can liaise with regional governments; UK support will be critical as Maliki achieves this … Basra is a metaphor for the challenges that Iraq faces."
It was a hard sell, a heartfelt appeal to the UK's sense of duty from its closest ally. But it seemed to fall on deaf ears. Browne says Basra's political class, with only two exceptions, "is corrupt … all these frustrations have led Britain to question why it maintains a role in Basra at all".
Browne tries to reassure his lunch guests by adding: "We are not rushing for the door." The facts, and Browne's tales of woe, seem to tell another story.