UK Planning to cut Iraq Force in Half by Mid 2007

UK Planning to cut Iraq Force in Half by Mid 2007

By Robert Hutton and Reed Landberg



Britain plans to cut the number of troops it has in Iraq in half by the middle of 2007, handing over control for security earlier than previously forecast, two government officials with knowledge of the plan said today.


The plan would reduce the size of the U.K. force patrolling Basra and other parts of southern Iraq to between 3,000 and 4,000. Britain currently has 7,000 troops in the nation and would begin the withdrawal in six months, the officials said in London.


Prime Minister Tony Blair in July said a ``significant'' drawdown of U.K. troop levels would begin by the end of 2007. Today's announcement is the first to show the scope and timing of the plan and reflects efforts to build up Iraqi forces capable of battling a growing insurgency in the country.


``We've done a lot of training for the Iraqi army over the past two years and they're up to the job,'' said Louise Heywood, head of the U.K. armed forces program at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based military researcher. ``They've become a force that's capable of standing up to the insurgents.''


The pace of withdrawal will be governed by the ability of Iraq's government to take control of regions currently run by the British. At least 115 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.


Blair's popularity has suffered since the invasion, dragging support for the U.K.'s ruling Labour Party to its lowest in 19 years, an ICM Ltd. survey published today showed. Labour had the support of 31 percent of voters, down 4 points from a month ago. Liberal Democrats, who opposed the war, gained 5 points to 22 percent and the Conservative Party had 40 percent.


Iraq's Plan


Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in May that he wants his government's own troops to be providing security in all except two of the nation's 18 provinces by the end of the year. The British military handed over control of the Muthanna province to Iraq in June, and aims to hand over control of Basra province in the first quarter of 2007.


The U.K. will then consolidate forces to a single base in the city of Basra, in southern Iraq, said one of the officials, a senior military commander speaking on condition of anonymity. The troops will remain to support Iraqi forces, he said.


Once the reduction is complete, U.K. forces will be concentrated in Basra for at least three years while U.S. troops remain in Iraq. British soldiers won't be sent to Baghdad, the officials said.


According to a senior defense official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, it will be up to Iraqi authorities to decide when control is handed over.


To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Hutton in London at; Reed V. Landberg in London at .

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