Britain will start Iraq troop withdrawal


Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce on Wednesday a new timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, with 1,500 to return home in several weeks, British media reported.

022006brits.jpgBlair will also tell the House of Commons during his regular weekly appearance before it that a total of about 3,000 British soldiers will have left southern Iraq by the end of 2007, if the security there is sufficient, the British Broadcasting Corp. and The Sun newspaper said, quoting government officials who weren’t further identified.

The BBC said Blair was not expected to say when the rest of Britain’s forces would leave Iraq. Currently, Britain has about 7,100 soldiers there.

The announcement comes as President Bush implements an increase of 21,000 more troops for Iraq, but while some of the other coalition partners are pulling out: The Italians and Slovaks have left, and the Danes and the South Koreans want to start withdrawing.

Blair and Bush talked by secure video link Tuesday morning, and Bush views Britain’s troop cutbacks as “a sign of success” in Iraq, said U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

“While the United Kingdom is maintaining a robust force in southern Iraq, we’re pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis,” Johndroe said in Washington.

Britain has long been the most important coalition member in Iraq after the United States. But Blair knows the British public and politicians from his own Labour Party want the troops out as quickly as possible, and don’t want to see Britain stick with the United States in Iraq for the long haul.

Militarily, a British withdrawal isn’t likely to have much effect on the stepped-up U.S. operation in Baghdad or the war with the Sunnis in Anbar province west of the Iraqi capital. However, Iraqi forces could have a tough time maintaining security in mostly Shiite southern Iraq, including Basra city.

Blair’s Downing Street office refused to comment on the report, which also said Blair would tell the Commons that if the situation worsens on the ground on Iraq, his new game plan could change.

A British government official confirmed that Blair would make a statement to the Commons on Wednesday on the status of British forces in Iraq. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

Johndroe said that “the United States shares the same goal of turning responsibility over to the Iraqi Security Forces and reducing the number of American troops in Iraq. … President Bush sees this as a sign of success and what is possible for us once we help the Iraqis deal with the sectarian violence in Baghdad.”

“We want to bring our troops homes as well,” Johndroe said. “It’s the model we want to emulate, to turn over more responsibilities to Iraqis and bring our troops home. That’s the goal and always has been.”

At a news conference in Brussels on Jan. 15, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was not bothered that Britain was “planning a drawdown at some point this year in their forces in the south.”

He said Basra’s security situation was much different than Baghdad’s.

Currently, according to the Brookings Institution, besides Britain, the major partners in the coalition include South Korea (2,300 troops), Poland (900), Australia and Georgia (both 800), Romania (600) and Denmark (460).

Some say there is little point in boosting forces in the largely Shiite south of Iraq, where most non-U.S. coalition troops are concentrated. Yet as more countries draw down or pull out, it could create a security vacuum if radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirs up trouble there.

Blair, who has said he will step down as prime minister by September after a decade in power, has seen his foreign-policy record overshadowed by his role as Bush’s leading ally in the unpopular war.

Last month, Blair said he would report to lawmakers on his future strategy in Iraq following the completion of Operation Sinbad, a joint British and Iraqi mission targeting police corruption and militia influence in Basra. The operation was completed Sunday, and Blair’s spokesman called it a success.

Treasury chief Gordon Brown, who is likely to succeed Blair, has said he hoped several thousand British soldiers would be withdrawn by December

In November, Defense Secretary Des Browne said he believed the number of British troops based in Iraq would be “significantly lower by a matter of thousands” by the end of 2007.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press