Britain's Brown visits Iraq

Other News Materials 2 October 2007 12:15

( AP ) - Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrived in Iraq Tuesday to meet troops and lawmakers - days before he makes a key announcement on whether he will cut British forces. He first went directly to a meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Brown, making his first visit to Iraq as British leader, was expected to address London's Parliament next week on the future of Britain's role in the country.

Brown and al-Maliki planned to settle on a date for local security forces to take charge of Basra province, the last remaining southern region under coalition control, officials said.

"He's going to want to discuss the developing security situation in Basra and the prospects for Iraqis taking full responsibility and the timescale for that," a British official said, on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of talks.

Brown aims for Britain to focus on economic development as its security role reduces and planned to question al-Maliki on the progress of political reconciliation, he said.

Despite ongoing tensions between rival Shiite factions in Basra, the city had avoided the chaos some predicted would ensue after British troops left their last city center base, the official said.

Britain's defense ministry said rocket and mortar attacks on their base at Basra airport had fallen sharply in the last month, with only a few attempted strikes.

Karim al-Miahi, the head of the Basra security committee and a member in the provincial council said, "The withdrawal of the British forces has had a negative effect on security in the city. Iraqi forces still are not able to control the situation which has deteriorated over the past three weeks. There has been an increase in assassinations of police and religious leaders. As for the areas around the British base, the situation is more stable. Shelling there has stopped."

Abdul-Maunim Karim, 50, a retired sailor who lives near the presidential palace now vacated by the British, agreed that area there was quieter because the shelling had stopped. "But throughout the city violence remains at about the levels before the British troops left."

Ex-prime minister Tony Blair was greeted with a salvo of mortars as he made a final visit to the camp before leaving office in June. Soldiers at the time reported as many as 10 strikes a day.

Advisers to Brown rejected reports the leader had already decided to withdraw between 2,000 and 3,000 troops by the end of the year, but acknowledged he is studying a range of options.

Brown was meeting U.S. Gen. David Petraeus in Baghdad and planned lengthy talks with British military commanders to gauge their assessment of the numbers of British troops still needed.

"This is part of the process of finalizing his statement to Parliament early next week," the official said.

Britain has around 5,000 soldiers based mainly at an air base on the fringes of the southern city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Troops vacated their last remaining downtown Basra base last month, accelerating calls from the British public to drawdown some forces.

Following a meeting with U.S Gen. David Petraeus last month in London, Brown pledged Britain "will discharge its duties to the Iraqi people, to our allies and to the international community."

But officials have said Britain will soon hand over responsibility for security of Basra province to local forces, the last district it holds control for.

Military leaders hope that Britain will remain in charge only of training Iraq troops and border guards, securing key supply lines and responding to emergencies when called on by local commanders.

Des Browne, Britain's defense minister, has acknowledged there may be some reduction in numbers when soldiers ending current tours are replaced in November and December.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities have aired concerns that a British drawdown could jeopardize the region's rich oil resources and the land supply routes from Kuwait to Baghdad.