- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

BASRA, Iraq (AP) — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced yesterday that he was slashing the remaining British contingent in Iraq by nearly 20 percent. A beleaguered Iraqi leader said his own forces would be ready to take up the slack in the country’s oil-rich southernmost province in two months.

In violence yesterday, at least 13 persons were killed, including two women, a child and four police officers, in five separate attacks.

Mr. Brown’s one-day, unannounced visit to Iraq comes as U.S. military officials are concerned that the reduced British presence in the south could open security gaps along key supply and transit routes to Kuwait.

Mr. Brown is said to be contemplating early elections in Britain, where the war is deeply unpopular. He arrived in Baghdad midmorning and went straight into a meeting with his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki.

“We are prepared to take over security of Basra within two months and we will,” Mr. al-Maliki said after the meeting in his Green Zone office. “Basra will be one of the provinces where Iraqi forces will completely take over security.”

Mr. Brown confirmed Mr. al-Maliki’s plans and said, “As we move to overwatch, we can move down to 4,500” troops from the current level of 5,500. He promised to bring the 1,000 troops home by Christmas.

Last month, British troops vacated their last remaining base in downtown Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. The British force now is based mainly at an air base on the fringes of Basra city inside Basra province.

The British leader said any further decision on troop withdrawals would be made next year.

Britain’s opposition Conservative Party dismissed Mr. Brown’s visit as a “photo opportunity” amid mounting speculation at home that he is preparing to call a snap election and wants to distance himself from the increasingly unpopular Iraq policy of his predecessor, Tony Blair.

Conservative Party defense spokesman Liam Fox criticized the lack of attention given to Iraq by Mr. Brown in a keynote address at his ruling Labor Party’s annual conference last week, saying there had been only 126 words on the subject.

Mr. Brown yesterday spoke at the Green Zone residence of Britain’s top commander in Iraq, Gen. Bill Rollo. Later, he traveled to Basra, where he gave a five-minute speech to British, Australian and U.S. forces, commending their courage.

U.S. commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, who met briefly with Mr. Brown, gave qualified assent to the British leader’s plan.

“I think that’s actually quite doable. Basra currently has four battle groups, Iraqis are largely in the lead. There are innumerable challenges in the security situation in Basra … but there are really Iraqi solutions that are emerging to some of these,” the American commander said.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said rocket and mortar attacks on their base at Basra airport had fallen sharply in the month since British troops left the city.

The announcement about the planned troop reduction in Basra came as the country saw record low casualty numbers for September, suggesting U.S.-led forces are making headway against extremist factions and disrupting their ability to strike back.

The U.S. military toll for September was 65, the lowest since July 2006.

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