Britain's five-year military campaign in Iraq could be over by the spring, Gordon Brown signalled yesterday as he outlined a "fundamental change of mission" for British forces to restore "normal" relations with the war-torn country. The 4,100-strong British deployment in Basra could be reduced to a few hundred troops under plans to bring relations with Iraq into line with other Middle Eastern nations such as Oman and Jordan.
Decisions on troop withdrawals could be announced as early as this autumn, when routine rotations are due to be confirmed. But Downing Street aides made clear there was no timetable for a withdrawal and said any decisions would be made on the security advice of senior officers.
The Prime Minister told MPs that the Defence Secretary Des Browne and military commanders would begin talks with the Iraqi government to agree the details of routine military co-operation between the two countries, and report back to Parliament in the autumn.
He said: "Just as last year we moved from combat to 'overwatch', 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, similar to the normal relationships which our military forces have with other important countries in the region."
He outlined just four remaining "key tasks" facing British forces in Iraq: training Iraqi forces in Basra; preparing Basra airport for transfer to Iraqi control; improving economic development; and providing support for provincial elections. No 10 officials said Britain's strategy had been decided "in full consultation" with the Americans, with Mr Brown had speaking to US commanders in Baghdad at the weekend.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said the British deployment in Iraq would remain at its current level over "the next few months", but added that there had been a "marked improvement" in conditions in Basra. He said he hoped local elections would take place by the end of the year, with Iraqi forces being able to take over Basra airport by then.
In the Commons, David Cameron called for clear figures on the number of British personnel in Iraq and highlighted Mr Brown's pledge to withdraw troops last year. The Tory leader said: "The Prime Minister said last October, and I quote, 'We plan from next spring to reduce force numbers in southern Iraq to a figure of 2,500'. Yet currently, for good reason, there are over 4,000 servicemen and women in Iraq."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, added: "I regret that there is still no real clarity or detail on when we will finally leave. This continues this odd nod-and-wink strategy that has guided our approach to Iraq for some time.
"Such uncertainty about timing in my view is unfair on our troops, unfair on their families and of course unfair on the Iraqis themselves."