Britain could start pulling out of Iraq in May, US general reveals

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British troops could start withdrawing troops from Iraq within months, a senior American general has suggested.

Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt of the US Central Command said the American-led coalition would be happy to reduce troop numbers as local security forces became ready to take responsibility for security in the war-torn state, where two British soldiers were killed last week.

He spoke as speculation mounted that Britain was preparing to reduce troop numbers from May. Yesterday the Ministry of Defence said reports of a plan to start pulling 2,000 troops out in the spring were "speculative" but acknowledged the Government was likely to start reducing its commitment of 8,500 soldiers by the end of the year. General Kimmitt told the BBC's Sunday AM programme it was possible that British troop numbers could also be reduced if the Iraqi security forces were judged capable of taking charge of the country. Asked whether a British withdrawal could take place as early as next month, General Kimmitt said: "There could be. If the British forces in the south took a look at their situation in those four provinces and determine the security situation is such that they don't need to have the same number of forces in the future, then it is appropriate."

He said that General George Casey, the commander of the coalition forces, would have an opportunity to reduce troop numbers "in the next few months".

Members of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee witnessed the poor security situation at first hand during a fact-finding mission to the country last week. Paul Keetch, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said: "When I went two and a half years ago to Basra we could walk around with troops in berets and some security but basically free to move around.

"When we went there last week we would not leave the base, indeed walking from building to building in the base we had to put on full body-armour. The security situation has deteriorated, there is no doubt about that. There is a real possibility that troops could come out of rural areas but the idea that we can pull out of other areas is not something commanders on the ground are thinking about."

Brigadier James Everard, who will be leading the 20th Armoured Brigade when it takes over in May, hopes that this is the year British troops will start to pull out. But he acknowledged that it will depend on the establishment of a credible and confident Iraqi Army and police force, and in particular the rooting out of the "small rotten core" amongst the police.

"I would expect that 2006 should be a year, not of completion, but of a year of transition," he said. "It is a process of progressive disengagement as we feel there is a credible, capable Iraqi security force that can provide a secure and stable environment."

William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, told the BBC: "It would be a catastrophic mistake to pull out too soon, to pull the rug from under the people trying to build a democracy there. We are not calling for any immediate withdrawal. This can only take place in a very measured way."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the acting Liberal Democrat leader, told ITV's Dimbleby programme: "We have a moral obligation to ensure that we leave Iraq in as good a condition as we possibly can. That is not served by deadlines."