- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

From combined dispatches

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce today a new timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, with 1,500 to return home in several weeks, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Mr. Blair also will tell the House of Commons during his regular weekly appearance that about 3,000 British soldiers will have left southern Iraq by the end of 2007, if security there is sufficient, the BBC said, quoting government officials who weren’t further identified.

The withdrawal was announced as President Bush implements a surge of 21,500 more troops for Iraq.

Mr. Blair said Sunday that Washington had not put pressure on London to maintain its troop numbers. Britain hopes to cut several thousand of its 7,000-member force in the southern city of Basra by midyear.

Britain put Iraqis in command of the main Iraqi army unit in Basra yesterday in an apparent move to pave the way for London to formally announce major cutbacks in troops.

“The Iraqi army division based in Basra has transferred from under coalition command, and is now — for the first time — taking its orders directly from an Iraqi headquarters in Baghdad,” the British military said.

“The transfer is a significant step towards Iraqi forces taking responsibility for security in the city.”

Since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, British troops have been responsible for Iraq’s southern-most four provinces, which are mainly Shi’ite and have been quieter than mixed or mainly Sunni areas patrolled by Americans. But a British decision to draw down forces could prove diplomatically sensitive at a time when Mr. Bush is sending thousands more American troops on a “surge” to fight sectarian violence in Baghdad.

The British handed over security responsibility for two of their four provinces to Iraqis last year and abandoned their main base in a third.

The force is now concentrated in Basra itself and at a nearby air base. Commanders say they hope to withdraw from the city and keep a reserve force on standby at the base.

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