Blair announces British troop withdrawal plan


Britain will withdraw about 1,600 troops from Iraq in coming months if local forces can secure the southern part of the country, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday.

Tony Blair

Tony Blair (Reuters)

“The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100 — itself down from over 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict — to roughly 5,500,” Blair told the House of Commons.

Denmark’s prime minister said Wednesday that his country will also withdraw its 460-member contingent from southern Iraq by August and transfer security responsibilities to Iraqi forces.

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the decision had been made in conjunction with the Iraqi government and Britain, under whose command the Danish forces are serving near Basra.

Fogh Rasmussen said Denmark would replace the troops with surveillance helicopters and civilian advisers to help the Iraqi government’s reconstruction efforts.

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

“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.

British Defense Secretary Des Browne, who planned to speak to reporters following Blair’s statement, said in November he believed the number of British troops based in Iraq would be “significantly lower by a matter of thousands” by the end of 2007.

Browne and Blair held talks last month with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in London. Gates told a news conference in Brussels on Jan. 15, that Britain was “planning a drawdown at some point this year in their forces in the south.”

Also, Lithuania is “seriously considering” withdrawing its 53 troops from Iraq, a government spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Defense Ministry spokeswoman Ruta Apeitkyte told The Associated Press that the Baltic country was considering not replacing the contingent when its mission ends in August.

It was the first time that Lithuania, a staunch U.S. ally, indicated it would reduce its commitment in Iraq.

According to the Brookings Institution, other major partners in the coalition include South Korea (2,300 troops), Poland (900), Australia and Georgia (both 800) and Romania (600).

Blair’s announcement comes as Bush sends 21,000 more troops to Iraq. Analysts say there is little point in boosting forces in the largely Shiite south of Iraq, where most non-U.S. coalition troops are concentrated.

Countries’ drawing down or pulling out troops could create a security vacuum if radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirs up trouble.

Militarily, a British withdrawal is not 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.

Gates said Basra’s security situation was much different than Baghdad’s and that the plan would probably not affect on the work of U.S. forces

“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.”

Blair, who is expected to step down from office 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.

As recently as late last month, Blair rejected opposition calls to withdraw British troops by October, calling such a plan irresponsible.

“That would send the most disastrous signal to the people that we are fighting in Iraq. It’s a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is actually deeply irresponsible,” Blair said on Jan. 24 in the Commons.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press