UK’s Brown says wants to cut troops in Iraq

ASD009812.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) – Prime Minister Gordon Brown flew into Baghdad on Saturday and said he wanted to reduce British troop levels in Iraq, although he refused to set a timetable for their departure.

He later flew to Basra, the southern oil hub, to visit British troops who controlled the city until they handed over to Iraqi security forces last December.

Violence in Iraq has fallen dramatically, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a German magazine he supported a proposal by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama that U.S. troops leave the country within 16 months.

Brown was the latest in a series of high-profile visitors who have tried to bolster Maliki’s government and encourage investment now that attacks are at their lowest level since early 2004.

Britain contributed 45,000 troops to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein but only some 4,000 remain, based at an airport near Basra where they are training Iraqi security forces.

“It’s certainly our intention that we reduce our troop numbers but I’m not going to give an artificial timetable for the moment,” Brown told reporters traveling with him after meeting Maliki in Baghdad.

“The tests for us will be: how are we meeting the objectives that we’ve set? What progress can we show?”

Maliki’s office said in a statement that Brown praised the security improvements in Iraq.

His visit coincides with the Iraqi government’s growing confidence in its ability to stabilize the country.

In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine released on Saturday, Maliki said he wanted U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible.

“U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes,” he said.

It was the first time he had backed the withdrawal timetable put forward by Obama, who is visiting Afghanistan and is set to go to Iraq as part of a tour of Europe and the Middle East.

Obama’s campaign welcomed Maliki’s support.

“This presents an important opportunity to transition to Iraqi responsibility, while restoring our military and increasing our commitment to finish the fight in Afghanistan,” Obama’s senior national security adviser Susan Rice said in an emailed statement.

BUSH AGREES “TIME HORIZON”

Underscoring Baghdad’s increasing assertiveness, Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush agreed this week to set a “time horizon” for reducing American forces in Iraq.

It was the closest the Bush administration has come to acknowledging the need for a timeframe for U.S. troop cuts. Bush has long opposed deadlines for troop withdrawals.

Brown’s government, whose opinion poll ratings have slumped, is expected to make a statement to parliament next Tuesday on Britain’s future role in Iraq.

London announced last October it planned to cut troop numbers to 2,500 from around April this year, reducing its involvement in a war whose unpopularity contributed to the early retirement last year of Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair.

But it delayed the move after Shi’ite militias fiercely resisted a government crackdown in Basra province in March.

Brown said key objectives that needed to be met before troop numbers could be cut included training Iraqi forces, ensuring Iraq could hold local elections expected this year and boosting development in Basra, the hub of Iraq’s southern oil sector.

In a political breakthrough, Iraq’s main Sunni Arab bloc rejoined the government on Saturday after parliament approved its candidates for several vacant ministerial posts.

The Accordance Front quit a year ago in a row over power sharing, and its long-expected return has been seen as vital to healing divisions between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.

Sunni Arabs have little voice in the current cabinet, which is dominated by Shi’ites and ethnic Kurds.

Analysts credit an increase in American troop levels and a more assertive stance by Iraq’s security forces with reducing violence in Iraq to four-year lows.

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