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British to Begin Iraq Withdrawal in March

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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 11, 2008

LONDON, Dec. 10 -- Britain will withdraw nearly all of its troops from Iraq beginning in March and U.S. troops will take over their positions in Basra, according to several British newspapers citing military sources.

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Britain currently has 4,100 troops in the country and is expected by June to have only about 400 remaining to help train the Iraqi army, the reports said.

The leaked timetable appeared to have been orchestrated by the Defense Ministry to cheer troops ahead of Christmas and to make good on a promise by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to end the nation's involvement in the unpopular war. Brown is expected to make an official announcement in the new year, but is widely seen as waiting to coordinate with the new administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

During the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Britain moved 46,000 troops into Iraq. In July, Brown, well aware of the political damage the war had caused his predecessor, Tony Blair, said most of Britain's troops would be withdrawn by early 2009.

The British drawdown signals an end for the second-largest force and America's strongest ally in the coalition in Iraq. The United States has about 150,000 troops in Iraq; Obama promised during the campaign to withdraw most combat troops within 16 months of taking office.

"Our whole country will breath a sigh of relief that an end to this illegal war is now in sight," said Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, referring to the British reports.

A Defense Ministry statement Wednesday, while not explicitly confirming the reports, said the ministry was "expecting to see a fundamental change of mission in early 2009."

"Final decisions on the timing of the drawdown will depend on the circumstances at the time," said a ministry spokesman who spoke on the customary rules of anonymity.

U.S. and British commanders have been in close contact on the timing of the long-expected British withdrawal. The British presence has been key in protecting main supply routes across southern Iraq.

The Guardian and other British newspapers said several thousand U.S. troops would move in to take over Basra airport, where British forces are now based, to protect convoys from Kuwait and support Iraqi forces in keeping the peace.

"This is far more significant for the British than it is for Iraq or the U.S.," said Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter. He said the British troops were "at such a low level, they were barely able to protect themselves, never mind enforce Basra." Still, he said, the pullout will boost Brown, who is expected to call an election next year, and "may make a difference in how many forces can be sent to Afghanistan."

Jock Stirrup, chief of the Defense Staff, said last month that British troops departing Iraq cannot be transferred "one for one" to Afghanistan, where there has been growing U.S. pressure on Britain to add troops.

Stirrup and other defense officials have said the two wars have put enormous strain on the army.

Britain already has a considerable presence in Afghanistan, with 7,800 troops, and the media reports said it would be moving some aerial surveillance drones and Merlin helicopters from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Stirrup indicated last week that any growing British presence in Afghanistan would include manpower and aid to rebuild the economy. "I and others have been saying for over two years now we have to get a grip on the civilian effort," he said.

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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