Britain to Cut Troops in Iraq to 2,500 by Spring, Brown Says

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

LONDON, Oct. 8 -- Britain will cut its troop strength in Iraq by half in the coming months, from just over 5,000 now to 2,500 next spring, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced Monday.

Speaking in the House of Commons on the opening day of Parliament's fall session, Brown said the reduction was possible because of improving security in Iraq, particularly what he called a "calmer" situation around Basra, the southern city where British troops are based.

Brown disclosed the troop reductions as hundreds of antiwar protesters marched outside and opposition lawmakers grilled him over Britain's role in the extremely unpopular Iraq war.

"The harsh truth is that Britain's involvement in Iraq has been a catastrophe," said Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, who said Britain should completely withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible.

In his first major parliamentary address on Iraq since he took office in June, Brown rejected calls to set a timetable for a complete withdrawal of troops. He said any further cuts would be based on an assessment by military commanders of conditions in Iraq.

Brown said Britain's security role in Iraq was changing to one of strictly "overwatch" functions: training Iraqi soldiers and police officers, protecting supply routes into the country and patrolling the border with Iran. He said troops would also be available for a "re-intervention" to help Iraqi forces if necessary.

He said that by next spring, British forces would operate almost exclusively as trainers. As that shift occurred, he said, Britain would decrease its troops from 5,500 -- the level at the beginning of September -- to 4,500 by the end of the year, then to 4,000 and eventually 2,500 in spring.

He said an additional 500 support troops would be stationed in the region, but outside of Iraq. Analysts said they would most likely be based in Kuwait.

Brown also said Iraqis who had worked as interpreters and translators for British forces would be eligible for financial and other help to relocate to Britain or other countries where they felt safe. Brown said about 450 Iraqis who had worked for British forces for at least a year would be eligible immediately.

Opposition lawmakers repeatedly attacked Brown, with several saying that as a top cabinet official under his predecessor, Tony Blair, also of the Labor Party, he should have done more to prevent the war. Conservative Party lawmaker Malcolm Rifkind called the Iraq war "the greatest error in British foreign policy in recent times."

Brown repeatedly deflected criticism about the war's origins and stressed Britain's "obligation" to remain in Iraq to achieve security, political reconciliation and economic reconstruction.

The Conservatives criticized Brown for his trip last week to Iraq, where he visited with British troops and announced the initial reduction of 1,000 troops by Christmas.

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