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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: THE SADR CITY DILEMMA; BRITISH
TROOP DRAWDOWN

Blair expected to cut back troops in Iraq

Reports say about 1,500 British forces will leave in a few months. A larger withdrawal plan may be in the works.

February 21, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to announce the nation's first major troop withdrawal from Iraq, with about 1,500 forces likely to return home in the next few months, British news agencies reported Tuesday.

A total of 3,000 troops, or more than 40% of Britain's forces in Iraq, may be pulled out by the end of the year, the reports said, if a transfer of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces in the southern part of the country goes smoothly.

The prime minister's office refused to confirm the announcement, which is expected to be made to Parliament today. The move would be in line with a pledge the government made to consider drawing down troops this year as the Iraqi military and police shouldered more responsibility for quelling sectarian violence.

An important signal came this week, when Blair proclaimed that a program to make Iraqi troops take "main frontline control" of security in the southern city of Basra had been successful, clearing the way for British troops to assume a largely supportive role.

Critics, however, question how successful Iraqi forces have been when put in charge. The Iraqis have been assigned the lead role in at least two other provinces in southern Iraq.

"It is absolutely true, as we have said for months, that as the Iraqis are more capable down in Basra of taking control of their own security, we will scale down," with the proviso that sufficient British troops are "in reserve" to help in the event a "particular problem" arises, Blair told a British Broadcasting Corp. show over the weekend.

"The operation that we have been conducting in Basra is now complete, and that operation has specifically been to put the Iraqi forces in the main frontline control of security within the city," he said.

Blair said British forces in the south faced a somewhat easier task than that of American troops, who are in the process of deploying 21,500 additional forces in Baghdad and Al Anbar province, because there is no Sunni Arab insurgency or Al Qaeda in Iraq suicide attacks in the predominantly Shiite Muslim area of Basra.

Several British newspapers and the BBC reported that Blair would tell Parliament that he planned to reduce Britain's 7,100 troops to 5,500, with most of the cuts coming from forces deployed in Basra.

"The prime minister has said that Parliament will have to be told about this matter first," a Blair spokesman said Tuesday night.

In Washington, the White House said it was grateful for Britain's military support in Iraq. Blair and President Bush spoke Tuesday; presumably, the prime minister briefed the president on his plans.

"While the United Kingdom is maintaining a robust force in southern Iraq, we're pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition to more control to the Iraqis," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council.

"The United States shares the same goal of turning responsibility over to the Iraqi security forces and reducing the number of American troops in Iraq," he said.

Referring to Blair's conversation with Bush, he said, "President Bush sees this as a sign of success and what is possible for us once we help the Iraqis deal with the sectarian violence in Baghdad."

The Financial Times said Blair would assure members of Parliament that Bush expressed no opposition to a withdrawal.

In his BBC interview, Blair said he felt a "deep sense of responsibility" to help end the violence in Iraq.

"Of course I am devastated by the numbers of people who have died in Iraq, but it's not British and American troops that are killing them," he said. "It's not a question of being culpable. I feel a deep sense of responsibility for putting the situation right."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

Times staff writer Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.

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