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Britain plans to withdraw half its troops from Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Britain will cut its forces in Iraq by about half in the spring, shrinking the commitment of America’s leading military partner to just 2,500 troops whose engagement will be limited mainly to training Iraqi forces, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Monday.

The proposed withdrawal goes much further than the reduction of 1,000 troops that the prime minister announced in Baghdad last week. It also sets the stage for Britain’s exit as an active combat participant in the still-troubled region of southern Iraq where its troops are based.

U.S. officials said that the move was consistent with plans Britain previously had announced to reduce the size of a force that once numbered more than 40,000 soldiers. U.S. generals have said publicly that there is little the British can do to resolve the main conflict in the south, an internal power struggle among Shiite Muslim factions.

But privately, some U.S. officials complain that the new prime minister is abdicating his country’s role in the war because it is politically expedient. The war is deeply unpopular in Britain.

“We will continue to be actively engaged in Iraq’s political and economic development. We will continue to assist the Iraqi government and its security forces to help build their capabilities -- military, civilian and economic -- so that they can take full responsibility for the security of their own country,” Brown told the House of Commons.

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The strategy he laid out was a departure from that of his predecessor, Tony Blair, whom he replaced in June. Brown called for Britain to move progressively out of active combat into a staged “overwatch” role in Iraq, with only “limited” capability for “re-intervention” after spring.

Brown said there were 5,500 British troops in Iraq at the beginning of September.

The British contingent remains the largest of the foreign forces allied with the U.S. military in Iraq, but the overall number has dropped from about 50,000 in 2003 to less than 12,000 now. U.S. troops make up 93% of the total foreign force. U.S. forces, which have been concentrated in Baghdad and other conflict-ridden regions to the north, have relied on British forces to guard southern Iraq, a region that includes some of the nation’s biggest oil fields, its only access to the sea, 200 miles of its long border with Iran and the main supply line from Kuwait.

At home, Brown’s government faces increasingly vociferous opposition to the war. A YouGov poll this year showed that 30% of respondents wanted troops out as soon as possible, while an additional 40% wanted a time limit of no more than 18 months.

Thousands of protesters marched through central London to Parliament on Monday to voice opposition to a war in which 170 British soldiers have lost their lives. Protesters were dismissive of the reductions Brown announced.

“The smaller the number of British troops is, the more stupid the British policy is. What can you do with two and a half thousand troops? It’s simply a political gesture to support George Bush,” said David Wilson, a spokesman for the Stop the War Coalition, which organized the march.

Similar sentiments were expressed inside the House of Commons.

“The hard truth is that Britain’s involvement in Iraq has been a catastrophe,” declared Liberal Democratic Party leader Menzies Campbell.

“We have paid dearly and widely in resources and reputation, and isn’t it time to acknowledge that the presence of British troops in Iraq no longer serves any realistic military or political purpose?” he said. “Isn’t it time to acknowledge that after 4 1/2 years, Britain has more than fulfilled any moral obligation to the people of Iraq, and that our obligation now is to the young men and young women of our armed forces?”

The reduction, although it falls short of a full withdrawal, does signal Britain’s unwillingness to accede to quiet U.S. requests for substantial help in patrolling the troublesome Iranian border, analysts said.

“The mission instead is now to extricate the force responsibly and without damaging the area’s precarious security, such as it is,” Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, wrote on the institute’s website. “Exactly when Britain leaves Iraq has become a tough political question, but the drawdown and progressive disengagement, probably via basing in Kuwait, is effectively nonnegotiable.”

Blair’s support for the war was the biggest reason for his downfall as prime minister. Blair had also called for gradually drawing down British troops as Iraqis took over responsibility, but showed more willingness to keep remaining forces actively engaged in patrols and military operations, analysts said.

“With Brown, you can say there’s an exit strategy,” said Alex Bigham, a Middle East expert at the London-based Foreign Policy Center. “Whereas under Tony Blair you still had British troops going out on the streets of Basra, that won’t happen under Gordon Brown unless there’s a very serious disturbance.”

The core of Britain’s remaining contingent redeployed several weeks ago from the center of Basra to the airport. Troops will remain at the airport, a decision that reflects the force’s value as “a very key strategic asset in terms of supporting the troops who remain, supporting the Iraqis and, if necessary, bringing in forces from outside if things go bad,” said Christopher Langton, a conflict analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Britain has been progressively handing back control of large swaths of southern Iraq to newly trained Iraqi forces. Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Maysan provinces have all been relinquished.

Brown said the plan now calls for going down to 4,000 troops and then 2,500 in spring, “with a further decision about the next phase made then.” British analysts said it was clear Brown hopes to have all forces out of Iraq before elections, tentatively expected in spring 2008.

“He could have gone much further today. There are certainly things that suggest he looked at options which were far quicker in terms of the drawdowns of British troops. He was looking at potentially having most, if not all, troops out by Christmas,” Bigham said.

“I think the fact that he has not gone for that option means that obviously he has sensed the importance of the south, and a fear on the part of the Americans that they might have to backfill troops,” he said.

At least 16 nations that originally sent troops have pulled out, including Japan, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. A total of 25 nations, in addition to the U.S., remain part of the force, though not all are deploying troops.

Brown emphasized that his decision was reached in consultation with “our allies” and was contingent on expected gains in security in the region and British expectations of training 35,000 Iraqi security forces to take over in the south by spring.

In Washington, Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, called Brown’s announcement “consistent with previously announced plans by the British to reduce their troop presence in southern Iraq as the Iraqi security forces are able to take lead responsibility in the southern provinces.”

Some U.S. officials have complained in private about Brown taking steps to speed up the British drawdown almost immediately after assuming office, even as Basra is beset by factional fighting.

However, in approving of earlier British drawdown plans, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. ground commander, argued that the violence in Basra was rooted in an internal Shiite power struggle that he said the Iraqi government must resolve.

Likewise, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, said during a visit to London last month that Iraqi security forces could handle any violence in the south “with minimal assistance.”

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, said he did not think the British would have moved to reduce troop numbers unless they felt Iraqi forces were ready to take over.

“I’ve been out of Iraq for almost eight months, [but] in the time I was there, our allies were shouldering a good burden,” Casey, who preceded Petraeus as U.S. commander, said at a news briefing. “Where they have been reduced, they have been reduced as a result of progress on the Iraqi security front.”

kim.murphy@latimes.com

Times staff writers James Gerstenzang, Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Countries with the most troops in Iraq:

Foreign troops

United States: 160,000

Britain: 5,500

Georgia: 2,000

Australia: 1,500

South Korea: 1,200

Poland: 900

Romania: 500

El Salvador: 280

Source: News reports. Graphics reporting by Scott Wilson


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