LONDON – Britain will halve its remaining troop contingent in Iraq next spring, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced Monday. A British official later said they could not guarantee that any troops would remain in Iraq by the end of 2008. Brown, under fire over his decision not to call an election for this year, said Britain would lower troop levels to 2,500 by mid-2008 and redeploy logistics staff to neighboring states. The British leader was clearly hoping the announcement would help boost his popularity among a public weary of the war.
Aides had stoked election rumors for weeks, particularly as lawmakers and activists gathered for a series of political party conferences. But Brown scrapped the plans Saturday as opinion polls suggested his early wave of public support had waned.
Brown told lawmakers Monday his Iraq plan follows the success of the U.S. troop increase this summer and efforts by Iraqis to drive suspected al-Qaida militants from havens in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
He said decisions on further cuts would be made once the reduction to 2,500 was complete, rejecting a call from opposition lawmakers to set a timetable to withdraw all British forces.
Officials said the latest troop cut would be complete by April, and that a total withdrawal of forces would be among options considered then.
“At the point where we arrive at that number next year, we shall have a much clearer idea of what our policy is going to be,” a British official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “But certainly at this stage there’s no guarantee they’re going to be there beyond the end of (2008).”
The British presence in Iraq peaked with 46,000 troops during the March 2003 invasion. It was reduced to 18,000 that May, and 8,600 by the end of May 2004. This past May, there were about 5,500 British troops in Iraq.
Britain is already scaling back forces, and by the year’s end will have 4,500 troops based mainly on the fringe of the southern city of Basra, where a power vacuum has exacerbated discord among rival Shiite groups.
Iraqi forces will take control of security in the southern province of Basra within two months, ending Britain’s combat role in the country, Brown said.
Brown, who visited Iraq last week, said Monday that British forces will initially carry out oversight duties including securing key supply and transit routes from Kuwait to Baghdad. By next spring, troops will be focused mainly on training and mentoring.
Some 500 British logistics and support staff will be moved outside Iraq, but within the Middle East, to support the remaining troops, Brown said.
U.S. military officials are concerned that the reduced British presence in southern Iraq could open security gaps along routes to and from Kuwait.
The roadways are a lifeline for U.S. forces. And everything that the Americans can’t fly out of the country when they eventually leave must make the potentially dangerous road journey to Kuwait through Basra province.
The American military is also concerned about the security of the southern oil fields and fear the absence of a major British force will discourage future investors deemed essential to upgrading Iraq’s decrepit petroleum infrastructure. Security along the Iranian border should the British leave is another worry.
Britain’s participation in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion – and the continuing presence of troops in Iraq – remains deeply unpopular here. On Monday more than 2,000 people marched from London’s Trafalgar Square to Parliament to demand a complete withdrawal of British troops.
Since the invasion, 170 British soldiers have died in Iraq.