Iraq Violence Halts British Drawdown

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

LONDON, April 1 -- Britain has postponed plans to sharply reduce its troop presence in Iraq because of recent fighting between Iraqi government troops and Shiite militias in Baghdad and Basra, Defense Secretary Des Browne announced Tuesday.

"It is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding," Browne said in the House of Commons. The British troop level is to remain at about 4,000, putting on hold a planned reduction of 1,500 troops.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced last fall that the British troop level would be trimmed from 5,000, reaching 2,500 this spring. But, Secretary Browne said Tuesday, "it is absolutely right that military commanders review plans when the conditions on the ground change."

In September, British troops withdrew from the Basra city center to a base near the airport. Britain formally turned over security responsibility for Basra to the Iraqi government in December.

British troops reengaged in combat for the first time since last year during the past few days as part of the Iraqi military operation against Shiite militia forces in Basra and Baghdad.

After nearly a week of fierce fighting, relative calm had returned to the streets of Basra by Tuesday after Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered members of his Mahdi Army over the weekend to stand down.

Browne said British forces, at the request of the Iraqi government, supported Iraqi forces in Basra by conducting artillery strikes, flying jet missions over the city "as a show of force," using helicopters to resupply Iraqi troops and providing medical care to the wounded.

"Iraqi operations continue and the government of Iraq is making steady progress in achieving its aims of ensuring respect for the rule of law by all parties and factions," Browne told lawmakers. "Sadr's call on Sunday for his followers to abide by a cease-fire and work with the government of Iraq to achieve security is a demonstration of this."

While Sadr's followers have claimed victory -- or at least a draw -- with government troops, Browne said it was "too early to give a definitive or detailed assessment" of the operation.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Tuesday rejected suggestions that the operation, which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said would restore clear government control of Basra, had been a failure.

"I think they've shown quite a lot of strength," Miliband said in an interview. "There has been some very tough fighting in which the Iraqi security forces have shown the value of the training that they've been given."

Miliband said Sadr's call for a cease-fire "shows that the Iraqi security forces have surprised some people by the mettle they've shown."

Some commentators in Britain have wondered why British forces did not play a bigger role in a military operation that President Bush called "a defining moment" for the new Iraqi government.

Miliband said British troops are "ready to engage" as part of the U.S.-led multinational force. He said any British military operations in Iraq are determined by the multinational force's leaders, and only when requested by the Iraqi government.

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