Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Blair to unveil 1,600 cut in Iraq troop numbers

Blair to unveil 1,600 cut in Iraq troop numbers
By James Blitz, Political Editor
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: February 21 2007 02:00 | Last updated: February 21 2007 02:00

Tony Blair is to announce today that Britain will cut the number of UK troops stationed in Iraq by about 1,600 - the first time the UK's military presence in the country has been cut since the 2003 invasion.

The Financial Times has learnt that Mr Blair will tell MPs that the current UK contingent in Iraq - numbering 7,100 troops - is to come down to 5,500. The reduction in troop numbers will pave the way for Iraqi forces to begin taking control of the city of Basra.

In a statement to the Commons, Mr Blair will present the reduction in troop numbers as an initially modest move that does not undermine the UK's fighting capability.

However, Mr Blair will also say that a large part of the UK military in and around Basra will now start to return to barracks, acting as a potential back-up force for the Iraqi military as it begins to take full control of Basra.

For Mr Blair, in his final months as prime minister, today's announcement is highly symbolic. After being dogged by the debacle in Iraq for nearly four years, today's statement allows him to leave office conveying the impression - albeit a limited one - that the UK intervention has had some success.

However, the announcement will be watched with anxiety by politicians across the political divide in the US. Britain's troop reduction comes as President George W. Bush has started to commit the US to a "surge" of US troop numbers in Iraq, a move contested by the Democrats in Congress.

Mr Blair, who yesterday spoke with Mr Bush about today's announcement, will today insist that there has been no opposition from Washington to the British move.

Mr Blair has told allies that senior White House figures regard today's announcement as good news for the coalition because it underlines that parts of the US-UK invasion have gone well.

Even so, Mr Blair's critics are likely to argue that conditions in the south of the country, where British troops have been in operation, have always been more favourable than they are in Baghdad.

Downing Street will want to convey today's announcement as one of the most significant stages of Mr Blair's final few months in office. Next month, Mr Blair plans to help pull off a big achievement in the Northern Ireland peace process, with hopes that a power-sharing executive will be formed after the assembly elections on March 7. Mr Blair is also focused on helping Angela Merkel, German chancellor, achieve agreement on a post-Kyoto deal on climate change at the G8 summit in June.

Apart from the situation in Iraq, Mr Blair is also likely to place emphasis on a possible climate change deal with Mr Bush - although White House concerns that Washington will only commit to a post-2012 treaty if China and India do the same have been taken into account.

Mr Blair's announcement on Iraq today comes at the end of Operation Sinbad - a four-month security operation conducted by UK forces that has been aimed at gradually putting the Iraqis in front-line control of the city.

The British handed over security responsibility for two of their four provinces to Iraqis last year and abandoned their main base in a third.

The UK force is now concentrated in Basra itself and at a nearby air base.


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