Blair to Announce Iraq Withdrawal Plan

imageNY11002210818.jpgBritain will withdraw nearly half its troops from Iraq by the end of the year if local forces can secure the southern part of the country, Prime Minister Tony Blair planned to announce Wednesday.Around 1,500 of Britain’s 7,000-strong force will return home shortly, a British government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak before Blair’s statement. Britain has long been America’s biggest coalition partner in Iraq.

Another coalition member, Denmark, was also expected to announce plans to begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq, Danish media reported. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen had earlier said he hoped Denmark would begin scaling back its 460-troop contingent this year, without setting a precise timetable.

Blair’s office said the British leader would make a statement on Iraq and the Middle East to Britain’s parliament following his weekly House of Commons questions session. It would not disclose the content.

But the official said Blair planned to outline a strategy which would leave about 4,000 British soldiers in southern Iraq by the end of 2007 if the security there is sufficient.

Blair and President Bush talked by secure video link Tuesday morning about the proposals, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. Bush views Britain’s troop cutbacks as “a sign of success” in Iraq, he said.

“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 more control to the Iraqis,” Johndroe said.

British Defense Secretary Des Browne, who planned to speak to reporters following Blair’s statement, said in November he believed the number of British troops based in Iraq would be “significantly lower by a matter of thousands” by the end of 2007.

Browne and Blair held talks last month with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in London. Gates told a news conference in Brussels on Jan. 15, that Britain was “planning a drawdown at some point this year in their forces in the south.”

According to the Brookings Institution, other major partners in the coalition include South Korea (2,300 troops), Poland (900), Australia and Georgia (both 800) and Romania (600).

Blair’s announcement comes as Bush sends 21,000 more troops to Iraq. Analysts say there is little point in boosting forces in the largely Shiite south of Iraq, where most non-U.S. coalition troops are concentrated.

Countries’ drawing down or pulling out troops could create a security vacuum if radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirs up trouble.

Militarily, a British withdrawal is not likely to have much effect on the stepped-up U.S. operation in Baghdad or the war with the Sunnis in Anbar province west of the Iraqi capital.

Gates said Basra’s security situation was much different than Baghdad’s and that the plan would probably not affect on the work of U.S. forces

“We want to bring our troops homes as well,” Johndroe said. “It’s the model we want to emulate, to turn over more responsibilities to Iraqis and bring our troops home. That’s the goal and always has been.”

Blair, who is expected to step down from office by September after a decade in power, has seen his foreign-policy record overshadowed by his role as Bush’s leading ally in the unpopular war.

As recently as late last month, Blair rejected opposition calls to withdraw British troops by October, calling such a plan irresponsible.

“That would send the most disastrous signal to the people that we are fighting in Iraq. It’s a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is actually deeply irresponsible,” Blair said on Jan. 24 in the Commons.

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