Gordon Brown is preparing to announce the withdrawal of a substantial number of Britain's remaining troops in Iraq as soon as Parliament returns next week. Up to half the force of 5,500 could be on their way home in the next few months.
One cabinet minister told The Independent on Sunday that the announcement by the Prime Minister would be "significant" and would set out a clear strategic direction on Iraq. This would involve the withdrawal of thousands of troops, according to senior government sources.
Details of the pull-out emerged as it was claimed ministers had drawn up secret plans to slash the number of ships in the Royal Navy. The Sunday Telegraph said the expected cuts followed a spending row between service chiefs and the Treasury.
Mr Brown is expected to confirm the handover of Basra, the last remaining province in British hands, to full Iraqi control, and to outline a timetable for the departure of most British forces in Iraq next year.
Under a series of scenarios being drawn up by aides, between 2,000 and 3,000 troops would remain in Iraq into next year in an "overwatch" role, ready to intervene in an emergency if called on by the Iraqi or American authorities. They would continue to train the Iraqi military and police, and protect the supply route from neighbouring Kuwait, which is vital to US forces further north.
The Ministry of Defence is understood to have been exploring the possibility of establishing a supply base in Kuwait, where support staff and vehicles, including helicopters, could be positioned. Although the base is unlikely to house frontline troops, it could be used to reinforce the contingent in Iraq.
"Numbers and timings are being presented to the Prime Minister. The detail of the announcement has not been agreed yet," said a senior government source. A "reasonable" sized force would have to remain, with the main focus on training the Iraqi security forces.
Since the early September handover of Basra Palace, the last base in Basra city, the entire British force has been concentrated at the central operating base at the airport.Reuse content