- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2007

LONDON (AP) — Britain will withdraw nearly half its troops in Iraq beginning next spring, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said today, leaving a contingent of 2,500 soldiers in the highly unpopular war.

Brown told lawmakers the move is possible because of improving security following the U.S. increase in troop numbers this summer and detailed discussions with the Iraqi government on a visit last week.

“We plan from next spring, to reduce force numbers in southern Iraq to a figure of 2,500,” Brown said in a statement to Britain’s Parliament.

Britain is currently scaling back forces and by the year’s end will have 4,500 troops based mainly at an air base camp on the fringe of the southern city of Basra.

A decision on further cuts will be made once the reduction to 2,500 is complete, Brown said, rejecting a call from opposition lawmakers to set a timetable to withdraw all British troops.

“The security gains made by the multinational forces this year have been significant,” Brown said. “As important as improving security is building the capacity of the Iraqi forces so they can achieve our aim: that Iraqis step up and progressively take over security themselves.”

Iraqi forces will take control of security in the southern province of Basra within two months, ending Britain’s combat role in the country, Brown said.

British forces will move to an oversight role which will initially include securing key supply and transit routes from Kuwait to Baghdad, Brown said.

But during a second stage beginning next spring, British troops will “maintain a more limited re-intervention capacity and where the main focus will be on training and mentoring,” Brown said.

About 500 British logistics and support staff will be moved outside Iraq, but within the Middle East region, to support the remaining troops, Brown said.

They are likely to be based in Kuwait, said officials speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. But Brown declined to specify citing security concerns.

Britain’s participation in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion — and the continuing presence of troops in the country four years later — remains deeply unpopular. Poll show a majority want troops brought home, and the war was a major factor in reducing Prime Minister Tony Blair’s parliamentary majority in the 2005 election.

Today, more than 2,000 people marched from London’s Trafalgar Square to Parliament to demand a complete withdrawal of British troops.

In all, 170 British troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

Iraqi interpreters or civilian staff employed by British forces for more than 12 months will be given financial aid to resettle within Iraq or leave the country, Brown said.

Following a furor over the lack of support or asylum rights offered to Iraqi workers, Brown said some staff would be cleared in “agreed circumstances, for admission to the United Kingdom.

Brown’s announcement came days after a visit to Baghdad and Basra which saw him announce a cut of 1,000 troops by the year’s end and hold talks with U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The leader was criticized from mishandling troop figures during the trip — counting an already completed withdrawal of 500 soldiers within an announcement that 1,000 troops would return.

Brown called today for increased work by the Iraqis to push political settlements, including the sharing of oil revenues.

“Our message to the government of Iraq — and to the leaders of all Iraq’s communities and parties — is that they must make the long-term decisions needed to achieve reconciliation,” Brown said.


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