British troops in Iraq to halve by next spring
Prime Minister Gordon Brown announces pullout amid antiwar protests and poor showing in polls.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown distanced his government decisively from his predecessor's Iraq war policy Monday when he laid out a plan to cut British troops in that country by half by next year. The announcement, made amid massive antiwar protests in London and atop a decision to delay national elections for another year, reflects the pressure on the government to pull out of an unpopular intervention before going to the polls.Skip to next paragraph
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Senior government officials called the proposal to halve the number of British troops from 5,000 to less than 2,500 by next spring a "progressive glide path" out of the country, reports the Financial Times.
About 5,000 troops are in Iraq, down from 5,500 at the beginning of September. This will fall to 4,500 as security control in Basra province is handed to Iraqi forces, probably in two months' time. At this stage, Mr. Brown said, Britain would move from a combat to an "overwatch" role – which would have two stages.
In the first, the role would have three main responsibilities: training and mentoring; securing supply routes to Baghdad from Kuwait and helping US forces police the Iran-Iraq border; and going to the aid of Iraqi security forces when called upon. But 500 support and logistics troops would at this point also set up a base in a neighbouring country. Officials said negotiations about the arrangements for a base in Kuwait were continuing.
The government will take more decisions next April, but officials acknowledged that "it was possible British troops could be out of Iraq by the end of next year," said the Financial Times. Mr. Brown put the decision down to progress in the province of Basra in southern Iraq, where British troops are based, describing the situation as "calmer," reports The New York Times.
Since President Bush has made clear that American troops will remain heavily committed in Iraq at least through his administration's end in January 2009, it appears that the tight alliance on Iraq forged between Mr. Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, and Washington is fraying. Indeed, a hallmark of Mr. Brown's three months as prime minister has been the relative distance he has established with the American president.
Last month, The Washington Post reported that Brown has largely stayed away from commenting on the situation in Iraq, and Britian's Blair-led alliance with US President Bush, "which had severely damaged Labor's public popularity."
Unlike Blair's charismatic oratory about Britain's role in world events, Brown seemed determined to refocus the public debate on local issues, including gun crime, drugs and breast cancer screening. He spoke of the "rising aspirations of the British people" and pledged to build more affordable houses and expand reading and math tutoring in public schools.
The BBC reports that by announcing the cut, Mr. Brown was likely seeking to "calm opinion at home – while at the same time reassuring his American and Iraqi allies that he is not cutting and running."