Brown predicts "fundamental change" in Iraq mission
Prime Minister Gordon Brown Tuesday signalled further troop withdrawals from Iraq when he said there would be a "fundamental change of mission" for British troops in Iraq during the first few months of next year, reported dpa.
Brown, who stopped short of laying down a concrete timetable for withdrawal, told parliament in London that British troop levels in southern Iraq would remain at 4,100 "for the next few months."
However, just like Britain's role in Iraq changed from "combat to overwatch" last year, "we would expect a further fundamental change of mission in the first months of 2009 as we make the transition to a long-term bilateral partnership with Iraq," said Brown.
"We will continue to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq," pledged Brown, who praised the work of British soldiers and the progress that was being made in training Iraqi forces.
Britain has scaled down troop levels from around 5,000 to 4,100 since last October, but further cuts to 2,500 men envisaged for this spring were halted due to intense fighting following an Iraqi government crackdown on Shiite militias in Basra in March.
It is generally expected that Britain's role in Iraq will be restricted to the training of Iraqi forces next year, with a final pull-out likely by 2010.
The security situation in Basra, in southern Iraq, had been "transformed," said Brown. He expected Iraqi forces to take over control of Basra airport, where British troops are currently based, by the end of this year.
He expected Iraqis to hold local elections in Basra, said Brown. The training of Iraqi troops should be "completed during the first months of next year."
Britain was making progress in training Iraqi security forces, and "establishing the ability of those forces to employ sophisticated counter-insurgency tactics," said Brown.
Brown made his statement after a surprise visit to Iraq at the weekend, during which he discussed the security situation in the country with Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister.
His comments came only hours after the publication of a report by parliament's influential defence select committee which said "a high degree of security" had been restored in Basra.
"The preconditions are in place for political progress and economic recovery," said the report. But it also warned that the influence of Iran remained a "major factor" in southern Iraq, where the border was "porous, allowing military and weaponry to flow easily from one country to another."
In a separate development Tuesday, British and Iraqi troops said they uncovered a large cache of weapons on the outskirts of Basra, according to the Ministry of Defence in London.
The arms haul included mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, an anti-tank weapon and thousands of rounds of small arms ammunition.
The joint operation was focused on areas known to be used by insurgents to store weapons for use in attacks on British and Iraqi forces, the ministry said. dpa at sc