By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
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.
Conservative leader David Cameron denounced that move as political opportunism and said it was designed to steal the limelight during the Conservatives' annual party conference.
In the Commons on Monday, Cameron said Brown should have made his initial announcement in Parliament, not in Iraq. Cameron said it was "not an acceptable way for a prime minister to behave."
"I make no apologies for visiting our troops in Iraq," Brown said to loud jeers from Conservative lawmakers. "If we are to have a responsible politics in this country," he continued, "then ministers who hold responsibility for the safety and security of our armed forces must visit our armed forces, listen to what they say, draw on their advice and then make their decisions -- which is what I am announcing today."
Brown, facing his toughest political struggle since taking office, has been harshly criticized by opposition politicians and the British news media for how he handled his recent decision not to call a general election this fall.
After considering the idea for two weeks, Brown announced Saturday that he had decided against an early election. Opposition leaders said Brown had lost his nerve when new polls showed the Conservatives gaining on his Labor Party, following Conservative pledges to reduce inheritance and other taxes.
At his monthly news conference Monday morning, Brown denied his decision was based on the poll results. He said he listened to those who argued that a snap election could bolster Labor's majority in Parliament. But ultimately, he said, he decided to give his policies more time to achieve results before calling an election.
Of his decision, Brown told reporters: "I could have done it earlier, maybe I should have done it earlier -- that's the reality of the situation."